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Everything is Miscellaneous

So, if a chemist in your Italian division comes across an article on long-chain polymers, if she tags it as polymers, then other people in the organization, when they search for polymers or subscribe to a polymer RSS feed, will learn about that article automatically, very quickly. People may also discover that there’s a researcher in Italy who’s turning up really interesting information about polymers.

So, tagging is one way of doing it. But there are other techniques up and down the entire chain of how we manage information. For example, faceted classification allows users to browse information using a very common and familiar tree view of it, with categories and subcategories. This is a comfortable way of navigating information for us. But, in the past, the tree had to be constructed by someone else who decided how the stuff would be organized. With faceted classification, the user can browse the tree taking anything that she wants as the root and anything else as the next branch.

And so, the navigation now becomes highly personalized. And thus, very effective, very efficient. So, that’s another way of enabling the users of information to navigate it and to manage it in ways that are idiosyncratic and that work for them.

HM: Does this replace the traditional top-down taxonomies with something more democratic?

DW: Folksonomies, which are bottom-up taxonomies, could be used to replace the top-down taxonomy with one that’s closer to how most people think. But that’s not why folksonomies are important. The real importance of a folksonomy is that it retains much more information than the traditional top-down taxonomy does. The top-down taxonomy only knows, typically, that x is a member of y and y is a member of z. With a folksonomy, you know that 17 percent of people think of x as a member of y, but 23 percent think of it as a member of q, and 42 percent of them think that it’s really the same thing as an x.
So you have all that information available to you so that people can search in ways that are individual to them.

The folksonomy doesn’t have to replace the taxonomy with another static set of categories. It can instead allow the people who are in the minority a way of thinking about something to search the
way that they want to. The folksonomy can surface those minority relationships.

HM: What value do you see in what people are commonly referring to as Web 2.0, the social networking phenomenon that you mentioned earlier, and we’ll get into the semantic Web later.

DW: Web 2.0 recognizes trends that are not as discrete as the 2.0 name makes it sound. In fact, some of the most important trends that 2.0 recognizes, from my point of view, have been trends from the very beginning of the Internet. For example, user participation. Blogging was certainly a giant step forward in that regard. But even before blogging, the Internet was driven forward always by the fact that it was a world in which we, former couch potatoes, got to talk instead of being broadcasted to. The World Wide Web by itself fundamentally is a participatory medium and it always has been. But you had to know html to do it—a barrier, you know, but it was a barrier that lots of people crossed. So, I think there’s an element of truth in pointing to blogging in particular and saying, well, that really made a difference.

HM: And Web 2.0 to social networking and collaborative tools?

DW: The Web has always been about social networking. In fact, the Internet before the Web was already developing important social networking tools, such as mailing lists. That’s pretty basic, but mailing lists still are a powerful tool for pulling together social networks. With the introduction of sites like MySpace and Facebook, obviously we’ve taken another step forward, but from the very beginning, much of the draw of the Internet was its ability to let us pull together groups of people and ideas that matter to us. We never could just look out at the Web itself and see a vast plain of billions and billions of pages. We are always looking at it from a point of view, and frequently we’re looking at it through the links and recommendations made to us by others, by people we know, or we don’t know, but people we respect. And so our view of the Web has always been through our social network. We now have tools that are quite sophisticated in enabling us to do that and to maintain the social network itself. That’s a really important development. There’s a big chunk of people for whom the Internet looks like their Facebook page. That is, the social network is the lens through which they see the Internet itself.

HM: So, how can these tools be best exploited in a business environment?

DW: Well, internally, businesses have always been run by social networks, which usually are exactly what are not surfaced in the org charts. Social networking tools are a powerful way for a business to multiply the power of its individuals. Externally, social networks provide a way for you to see your market—your actual market, not a demographic slice and not a focus group, but your actual market, the people who are buying and talking about your things. But obviously you don’t want to spy; you don’t want to spam.

HM: There’s a whole generation of customers, employees out there now who grew up with the Web. What do you think businesses should be doing as people like ourselves (I’m 57 years old) ...

DW: We’re the same age! I’m 56.

HM: ... So as we age out of the prime traditional market, how can enterprises use these Web 2.0 technologies to be agile enough to meet the needs of a generation that views the world in a much different way than we did at their age?

DW: We are in a generational conflict. This is very obvious at social networking sites where it’s so apparent that our kids are not only drawing a line between the public and the private differently, they actually have a different idea of what it means to be public and private. And so when we go to interview that generation and we Google them or we go to their Facebook page and we see all of the embarrassing things that they are posting, we would never ever have admitted to. But we’re judging by a different standard of publicness than they are. That’s going to get in our way; it’s already getting in our way.

HM: You’ve been writing for KMWorld for 10 plus years now. I think businesses are actually coming back to the question of knowledge. Knowledge management is no longer a taboo term any more. How does the miscellaneous affect knowledge?

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