How Social Tagging can improve Digitized Cultural Heritage

September 27, 2010

The Internet has in recent years paved the way for the social web. This is a development to the so called Web 2.0. In this manifestation the web finally distanced itself from traditional websites in the old media tradition. One of the characteristics of the social web is social tagging, also called folksonomy. To investigate this phenomenon from a humanistic perspective, we should ask what this phenomenon entails, what theories (in media studies) relate to it, clarify the debate beyond the hype and observe what positions are captivate in this debate. This blog is a first attempt of such an assignment.

One of the problems of the Internet is that it is so large and unwieldy spread of information. As humans we like to create order form chaos of large amounts of information by categorizing it into need systems. A traditional way to do this is by making classifications based on keywords. Within the social web this is been done through folksonomy as on sites like Flicker, Delicious and LibraryThing where content is categorized by tags.

Although social tagging often does not has a formal description as an outcome, this does not yield the keywords added to the content are no less valuable because one of the major differences from a traditional format is that bottom-up social tags are produced and must be seen in connection to a network. Herwith it must be taken into account that this network is social and virtual. It’s like Clay Shirkey points out in his article Ontology is Overrated no bookcase where the virtual collection may be set aside, for the fact that just the physical aspect is missing online. The division made is in a virtual environment and therefore not linked to physical substance but in an associative and community. For example, a social tag points out the relationship the user has with the subject. This relationship can be seen as providing value to the content and indicates the importance and relevance of the subject to the user.

This notion of the user being in command is part of the shift from the traditional network to the social. While here it is not about the publisher of the information and his aim for profit or success, but the user is the one in charge. This being in turn, is part of a paradigm shift to an individualistic society where the individual is paramount. The individual in need of the social is shown in the notion of the Web 2.o. And results in sharing of issues of important to find others within their network to share valid information. This has lead to knowledge sharing, knowledge that other users, but also professionals and cultural organizations can benefit from. A n example of such an advantage is seen in the online bookstore Amazon, where ones attention is referred to other subjects of purchase when buying a particular title. The buyers interest is drawn to other relevant titles by the Custumers Who Bought This Book Also Bought button.

This said, let us bring a subject of my own interst, digitized cultural heritage. One of the problems that cultural institutions have to face is the large amount of digitized content that is often short term, therefore the classification of this content is often left behind and often not complete or usable to the public. An advantage of social tagging mentioned by Van Vliet in his book The Digital Kunstkammer is that users can play a role in the adding of metadata to digital content. The use of amateurs can assist in sorting all this digital information through an easily accessible and user-friendly index by social tagging. Examples where this has happened successfully is the Van Papier naar Digitaal project. An initiative to the Statenvertaling (the Dutch King James Version) of the Bible to be digitized. Because so many users had registered, the job could be done quickly. And because they were so enthusiastic  about the project even other Bible translations could be digitized.

As already indicated, it is just social tagging to support knowledge, this is done via a network, and a social network. This social network is not in the hands of the professional, he will not manage the layout of the content as was the case previously, this task is through the social web now part of the user. But in the case of digital cultural heritage the content is not in possession of the user. The question that rises is why should users put their energy into organizing content that is not theirs? This question can be answered looking at the accessible nature and the opportunity for knowledge sharing in the social aspect of Web 2.0. Content is appropriated by inserting the user that puts his energy into the content. By adding your name to a given subject the user connects himself as being associated with the respective information. In this way, as Terry Flew calls this building on social capital which in turn adds value to the network of the user.

The next question coming into mind here is, how to get users so far as to help with the tagging of files? The first thing to be worked on in order to activate users, is to let the content to become part of their network. Simply pimping of the existing website with Web 2.0. looking design and an option to ad their comment will not do the trick. It should be clear to the user what they can do with the content, what impact and possible effects, this has for them and the cultural institution, now being part of their network.

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