Lumpers and Splitters

When Carl Linnaeus started classifying plants and animals in his taxonomic Systema Naturae, he inadvertently gave birth to two new groups of people: Lumpers and Splitters. Lumpers are the sorts of people who look for similarities between things and group them according to what features they have in common. Splitters look for differences and create new classifications for things that don’t seem to fit in an existing pigeonhole.

The trouble with the classification of things is that we learn from a young age that things are what they are, without ever really considering why they are what they are.

Let’s take the example of a mammal with four legs, fur and a tail which goes ‘miaow’. Let’s call it a cat. Were a Lumper who knew about cats to see for the first time a mammal with three legs, fur and no tail which goes ‘miaow’ they will say ‘cat!’, but a Splitter would say ‘not cat!’. We, of course, instinctively know when a cat is a cat, without ever having to count legs or check for fur.

Of course, methodologies for classification of the natural world have developed significantly since 1735, but we’re now faced with similar issues of taxonomy and nomenclature in the blog world. Is a LiveJournal a blog? Must a blog have comments and trackbacks? Is a fictional blog still a blog? Must a cat have a tail?

These, though, aren’t the questions I’m going to tangle with right now. Instead, I’m going to posit the existence of five overarching types of business blog before I start considering them in more depth in future posts:

1. Marketing blogs – external, B2C blog, used to promote either the company or a product/service.

2. External blogs – used to communicate with the public, but not for sales purposes, for instance, in a consultation process.

3. Insider blogs – employee blogs, sanctioned but not controlled by the company they work for. (Sometimes disclaimed by the company they work for.)

4. Internal blogs – blogs used within a company to share knowledge, build communities, disseminate news.

5. Content blogs – public-facing blogs reliant on content to bring in either subscription or, more likely, advertising revenue.

Lumpers would probably look at the above list and label them all ‘enterprise blogs’ or somesuch. Splitters will say ‘Yes, but that doesn’t cover everything – what about…?’, or will argue that some blog types listed aren’t business blogs at all, but personal blogs.

There are benefits and problems to both the Lumping and the Splitting points of view. Lumpers have a tendency to miss the fine detail, which can lead to the erroneous assumption that all blogs are like their blogs, but they are good at looking at the wider implications of blogging. Splitters tend to get too caught up in the details of how and why blogs are different, so they miss out on the bigger picture.

But of course, categorising blogs is not always helpful: it detracts from the most important part of blogging – the people. The risk is that instead of understanding the people who write and read blogs, how they use blogs and what they gain from the experience, we will end up talking about semantics and software instead (cf. the LiveJournal vs., well, every other blogging tool debate).

This is what happened to Knowledge Management – it stopped being about the people and the knowledge and became a big discussion about software and IT.

On the other hand, classification is important for the efficient discussion and study of blogs. If I say ‘Marketing Blog’, I need to know that you understand what I mean, without having to pause and explain it every time. A common vocabulary is essential to meaningful conversation.

I don’t expect to have nailed in one shot the different sorts of business blog, but the comments are open. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Fredrik over at CorporateBlogging suggests that ‘internal blogs’ is a better phrase to use for No. 4, and I agree. Don’t know why I didn’t call it that in the first place.

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