More on Technorati tags

Over on Burningbird, Shelley has written a great summary/analysis of the current thinking on Technorati’s tags. It is beautifully written, sports some wonderful photographs, and is well worth reading. I’m not even going to attempt to summarise it here, because to do so would be to be like reinventing the wheel in triangular shape – pointless and nowhere near as good as the original.

The thoughts that follow are an elaboration of the comment I left on Shelley’s post, so if you read that then some of this may seem eerily familiar.

As I said on my previous post about Technorati tags, I can’t help feeling that we’re really only at the very beginning of the creation of meaningful tagsonomies and tagsonomical tools. Technorati’s implementation of tags is one step on a long road, but until we can sort by what Technorati calls ‘authority’ (but which is really a sort of popularity), pull the search results in to our aggregators by RSS, search using Boolean operands on multiple tags and do all sorts of complicated bespoke filtering, tags will remain a bit of a kludge.

Tags are, at the moment, at the ‘sledgehammer to crack a walnut’ stage, and there’s a lot of work to be done before we get it refined down to the toffee hammer stage.

A big issue is obviously implementation. People are lazy – I certainly am and I am sure I am not alone. Until we have a way to automatically tag or create tag suggestions that can be approved or disapproved by the user, we are going to have to rely on people bothering to tag their posts, and we’re going to have to put up with the way that the variable quality of their metadata affects this metadata-reliant system.

Of course, we have movement in that direction in terms of the various tagging tools which have sprung up with impressive rapidity. Ecto supports tags using the Custom Tag facility – just create a custom HTML tag with the code below and it will automatically create a tag from the selected text.

<a href="*" rel="tag"></a>

Stephanie Booth has created a plug-in for WordPress, and there is of course the Oddiophile bookmarklet I have mentioned previously. All good starts, but they still require the blogger to bother using them and think clearly about which tags are relevant. As Shelley and others have noted, people are not necessarily very good at creating accurate tags – even people knowledgeable in the area of taxonomy and metadata don’t always create good tags for their own work.

That said, I think there are a few uses for which tags, even as they stand, beat every other system hands down, and one of those is classifying posts by language. At the moment, there really isn’t a consistent way to mark blogs or blog posts by language and that makes it very difficult if one is interested in finding blogs in a given tongue.

If I wanted to find blogs written in Welsh, then I have a bit of a challenge ahead of me. I can search in Google for ‘blog cymraeg’ but all that gives me are blog posts which use the word ‘cymraeg’, so if the post is in Welsh but doesn’t mention the word ‘cymraeg’ it’s not going to show up. For more popular languages, I can choose which language Google should search in, but that still means I need to pick some keywords to search on.

There is a similar problem even with specialised blog search engines, including the keyword search on Technorati – they all search content. I’m no metadata expert, but I see a clear difference between metadata that describes the contents of a post, i.e. what it is about, and metadata that describes the format of the post, such as what language it is in.

By allowing people to add format metadata, tags give bloggers the power to describe aspects of their posts that would not be accurately reflected by keywords selected from the content. Tagging all Welsh posts with ‘Cymraeg‘, for example, allows anyone interested in Welsh blogging to locate the most recent posts in that language, regardless of what those posts might be about.

Using tags to make up for this shortfall in existing blog metadata, we can then use Technorati as an engine for discovery (as opposed to search) within a set of given criteria. At the moment there is just no other way to do this.

Tags may be a bit kludgy at the moment, but because they are capable of filling a gap in the way we locate blog posts that may be of interest, I think they are going to be with us for the long haul.

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BlogTalk Downunder

If you’re going to be within spitting distance of Sydney (is anywhere within spitting distance of Sydney, I wonder?) then you might be interested in going to BlogTalk Downunder, 20th – 21st May 2005. Invited speakers include Mark Bernstein, Rebecca Blood and Thomas N Burg. Both Mark Bernstein and Thomas Burg were at BlogTalk in Vienna last year, and are well worth seeing.

If you would like to present a paper at BlogTalk Downunder, then the deadline for abstracts is only a few days away on 31st January.

I would love to go, but I am afeared that a trip to Sydney is a wee bit out of my budget at this point. Of course, if the opportunity should present itself, then I’d be there like a shot.

Procrastinatus, God of Blogs

More on how to deal with procrastination and other bad habits that get in the way of being productive, this time from 43 Folders.

Once you’ve started admitting your “personal suck,” you can sample from an endless menu of tricks that may or may not help you improve things in your life. As long as you don’t lose an eye and can still get your work mostly done on time, where’s the damage in experimenting?

Quite right.

Although I have come to realise over the last day that the fact I am a ‘professional’ blogger is actually allowing me to bring the art of procrastination to new heights. All these posts you’ve been reading recently, here and on CnV? All displacement activity. All little acts of creative procrastination. There is one particular task relating to one particular project with which I am a bit late that I am persistently putting off because I don’t know where to start. It just so happens that the by-product of this procrastination is a whole bunch of blog posts, so I look like I’m actually working even though I’m not actually working upon that which should be benefiting from my attention.

Procrastination may be the thief of time, but it’s also the god of blogs.

The art of being on a panel

Guy Kawasaki provides some top tips on how to be on a discussion panel. I’m going to try to take his advice to heart, as I’m going to be on the Promoting Your Blog and Building Traffic panel at Northern Voice in Vancouver on 19 Feb. I’ll be batting ideas around with Jeremy Wright, Derek K. Miller and Chris Pirillo, all of whom I am very excited about meeting.

I’ve not spoken at a conference before, so I have to admit to being a wee bit nervous about it. I’m relying on the fact that I used to lecture occasionally about the History of British Popular Music from 1980 to present at Thames Valley University (and any of you from the Thames Valley area will realise just how big an achievement that isn’t) as an indicator that I am actually capable of speaking publicly without turning either into a rabbit-trapped-in-headlights or a gibbering fool. By the end of my stint at TVU I no longer got that hyped-to-the-eyeballs feeling before the lecture, but then, I no longer got that amazing smack-round-the-face buzz afterwards either.

However, if I start discussing the impact of Duran Duran on music videos and the development of MTV, you know I’ve regressed a bit too far. Equally, if I start cracking unfunny jokes, you know I’ve regressed even further to my (brief) stint as a stand-up comic in the early 90s back when comedy was the new rock and roll and I foolishly thought that I could make a living out of jabbering in a terrified manner in front of an audience*. Either result could be entertaining, so be sure to be there just in case.

If you’re in the Vancouver area on the 19th then it’s worth going – registration is only $20 CAN and you’re getting a great day for your money. If you happen to see me on the day, feel free to come up and say hello. I will be the slightly dazed-looking blonde Brit bint.

* Compared to my current career trajectory which involves foolishly thinking I can make a living out of jabbering in a slightly less terrified manner in front of an audience.

Procrastination, thief of… ooh! wanna watch a movie?

Procrastination. It’s a killer. It’s the bane of my life, and probably yours too. I’ve been working for myself for the best part of eight years and, although I am more self-disciplined now than I was when I started working as a journalist, being stuck in a small room 24 hours a day and having no clear delineator between work and leisure hours does mean one can slip a bit too easily into the ‘all waking hours are for working’ mentality. That, in turn, results in parts of your brain rebelling and then procrastination sets in and I’ll finish this post when I’ve updated my iPod…

There are a whole bunch of theories about time management and why the desire to sit and mindlessly rip CDs into iTunes is more attractive than the thought of doing $arbitrary_task, but recently I’ve read two accounts of dealing with procrastination that I rather like.

The first is from Phillip J Eby, who looks at procrastination and perfectionism from a programmer’s point of view, discussing the inhibitions that cause procrastination in terms of filters in his brain that prevent him from starting work:

I was previously aware in a general way that my impossibly-high standards for myself can get in the way of accomplishing things, and the other evening I blogged about precisely that. What I was missing was that this is actually something I can get my hands around, as it were. It’s not just some sort of abstract concept, it’s a concrete, specific behavior that occurs in a particular context: when considering options for doing something, I’m validating them against criteria.

Instead of allowing himself to start work on a first draft, if you like, he was attempting to force himself to start at the end by producing the finished thing. This is something many creative people do – we compare our first efforts to other people’s final draft without ever taking into account the blood, sweat and tears it took them to achieve it. When we don’t find the comparison favourable, we become insecure about our abilities and this is, in my opinion, the root cause of most creative blocks.

Eby goes on:

[…] I think I know how to fix it. The primary inhibition code I found in my head is, “don’t do the wrong thing”. This is a simplified form of the actual code, of course; it contains a mixture of ideas such as not making mistakes, not redoing work, doing what is justifiably correct with reference to external criteria, and so on. But the primary intent is to “avoid wrong action”, where “wrong” is defined as “not right”, and “right” is a function call to everything I know about what “right” might be, be it with respect to “right for business”, “right morally”, “right technically”, etc. […]

Anyway, the fix is ridiculously simple: just bump down the priority on those criteria, putting a filter in place to only inform me of issues with potentially serious or costly consequences that cannot be undone. Cutting and pasting documentation and doing some rephrasing of it doesn’t count as serious consequences. Another way of thinking about it is this: don’t tell me what’s wrong, tell me if there’s something to do that’s right. (With the exception of serious irreversible consequences, of course.)

In other words, stop being so picky and just get on with it. Unless what you are doing is going to result in death or dismemberment, don’t think about how it might be wrong, think about how it might be right. You can tidy up the loose ends later.

It’s like when people say ‘I don’t know where to begin’ – the answer is ‘Begin anywhere – wherever you begin is the beginning’.

This point of view is supported by Steve Pavlina who writes a great piece on overcoming procrastination. He looks at some of the reasons why we procrastinate, beginning with:

[…] Thinking that you absolutely have to do something is a major reason for procrastination. When you tell yourself that you have to do something, you’re implying that you’re being forced to do it, so you’ll automatically feel a sense of resentment and rebellion. Procrastination kicks in as a defense mechanism to keep you away from this pain. If the task you are putting off has a real deadline, then when the deadline gets very close, the sense of pain associated with the task becomes overridden by the much greater sense of pain if you don’t get started immediately.

He also suggests a few ways to get moving on a task:

  • Realize and accept that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do
  • Think of starting one small piece of the task instead of mentally feeling that you must finish the whole thing. Replace, “How am I going to finish this?” with “What small step can I start on right now?”
  • Give yourself permission to be human. […] Realize that an imperfect job completed today is always superior to the perfect job delayed indefinitely.
  • Guarantee the fun parts of your life first, and then schedule your work around them.

It’s a good read, and I’m going to try the 30-minute method myself tomorrow in an attempt to get done some of the things I need to clear up before I go to Boston on Wednesday. Put basically, the 30-minute method is working at a task for 30 minutes then giving yourself a reward regardless of result. The promise of a reward (always have been one for self-bribery) and the fact that anyone can concentrate on anything for 30 minutes usually results in you achieving more than you would if you tried to complete a set task or work for longer.

As Pavlina says, “Don’t worry about finishing anything. Just focus on what you can start now. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually be starting on the final piece of the task, and that will lead to finishing.”

Making use of tags and tagsonomies

Technorati really have been busy recently. As well as the new features I mentioned last week, they have now introduce a new tag search facility which allows you to search for posts that have been marked with a Technorati tag:

<a href="[tagname]" rel="tag">[tagname]</a>

For example:

<a href="" rel="tag">suw</a>

Technorati then pulls in any blog posts which have been thus tagged or categorised (it treats the categories as tags), along with photos from Flickr and bookmarks from, and collates them on a single page.

The link text does not have to be the same as the tag and could even be made invisible by linking to a space, although having discussed the matter with Kevin Marks, who clears up a couple of questions about tags on his blog, there are good reasons why that is not a good idea.

Firstly, linking to the same text as the tag gives people a link straight to the relevant tag page so that they can see who else is using that given tag, a bit like having the Technorati cosmos link on each post. It gives people clues about how you are tagging your posts, which may in turn encourage them to use similar tags so that your tag search results overlap, e.g. if two people are talking about tagsonomies then by tagging their posts as such, they both show on the same page and become part of the same discussion.

As Stephanie Booth points out, this is a very similar effect to that of TopicExchange, which I have used on occasion and found to be useful. TopicExchange works by collating trackback pings so is easier to use than Technorati tags, but Technorati probably has more reach and a better search facility. However, TopicExchange is run on a central server, whereas the Technorati tags are not only distributed, they are also open to being spidered, freeing up the tag data for other services to use.

Another reason for keeping your tag URI and your tag link text the same is that of spam. It’s fairly obvious that the Technorati system is open to abuse, as pointed out by Nootropic, but they are already aware of that possibility. Kevin Marks is very experienced at identifying spam, and is looking at ways to keep the database clean – one way of spotting tag spam would be if the link text did not match the tag.

All in all, this is an interesting way of using emergent tagsonomies to pull together diverse datastreams in one place. As it happens, I’ve had a number of different conversations recently with friends about such things, and this is a useful first step along the way to creating a single entry point for a variety of sources.

I do, as usual, foresee a couple of small problems. The Technorati tags at the moment need to be inserted manually in the markup by the blogger and, as anyone who has worked with taxonomies and tagsonomies knows, laziness wins every time – many people have a tendency to simply not bother adding metadata, no matter how useful it is. You only have to randomly browse the Flickr to see that not only do a fair proportion of users not tag their photos, many don’t even add meaningful titles.

A way round this would be for the blog tools to provide a specific ‘tag’ field for people to add in their metadata more easily, although it would be better if the software could somehow suggest tags for you. That is, though, getting in to the realms of metadata autodiscovery and automatic classification, which is far harder problem to solve than it first appears to be.

Perhaps another option would be for Technorati to use its keyword search facility as well as the tags, so my ‘Suw‘ page would show the most recent tagged blog posts and a selection of the most recent ‘Suw’ keyword search results. I would also like to see Technorati pull in other data streams, such as Furl bookmarks, (not everyone uses, or 43Things tags.

Another problem is one which bedevils all tagsonomies and that is the issue of synonyms and plurals: Do you tag using ‘tagsonomy’ or ‘tagsonomies’? Perhaps Technorati could use a Google Suggest style solution to this, so when you search for ‘tagsonomy’ it asks you if you would like to also see the results for ‘tagsonomies’ as well. It would also be good if one could use Boolean search operands in the tag search facility so that you can create complex search strings rather than being limited to one word or phrase.

Overall, Technorati tags are going down rather well, and I am looking forward to seeing how this project develops. I’ll even try to remember to tag my own posts properly.

Technorati tags: tags, tagsonomy, tagsonomies, technorati, taxonomy, taxonomies, suw