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September 02, 2008

ALT-C, Crowdvine and (social) tagging

The Crowdvine social network for next week's ALT-C Conference is now available and delegates are signing up apace.

One of the interesting things about Crowdvine is it's use of social tagging (solicited through a conference-specific set of profile questions) to show delegates' various areas of interest, expertise, etc.  The idea is to help people get in touch with each other and, like any tagging system, it works as well as the tags it is built on.

For a community like ALT-C, the approach to tagging, and the resulting tags, makes for quite an interesting case study.  Here's a couple of examples...

1) '(e-)learning' - As a human reader, I understand where this tag is coming from.  It's trying to tell me that the tagger is interested in both learning and e-learning without needing to create two tags.  Brilliant... if saving bits was the point of the exercise! :-)  Unfortunately, it completely fails as a tag because clicking on it shows that no-one else is using it - everyone else uses one or more of 'learning', 'e-learning' and 'elearning'.  Which brings me nicely to my second example...

2) 'elearning' vs. 'e-learning' - Both are in use.  Clicking on the tags (at the time of writing) shows 18 people interested in 'e-learning' and 9 people in 'elearning' (there may be some cross-over).  I'll go out on a limb and suggest that all these people are actually interested in the same thing!  One is therefore tempted to ask why the 9 people chose to use the less popular tag?  Actually, I can guess the answer so please don't tell me - whilst I accept that such action is completely understandable, it is also non-optimal.

There are probably other examples.

The point is that social tagging is a social activity, so you have to look at what other people are doing to get the most out of - not just when you first assign your tags, but subsequently as the community grows. 

Hyphens may well offend your tagging sensibilities but if that's what most other people are choosing, it pays to go with the crowd.


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Interesting post Andy, and your post can be seen as tag hygiene, a social activity. I immediately checked my profile. Have decided to use both tags, there's pragmatism for you.

I'd also noticed the "eLearning" vs "e-learning" (I've forgotten which one I selected). However, when I was entering mine, it didn't suggest tags as I was starting to write. [I've got a tag plugin for WordPress & as soon as I start writing a tag, it suggests all those I've already used starting with "e" or whatever.) Had that happened, I would have selected whatever was already being used.

(Unless by some weird chance I was the first person to use it; but I don't think so)

However, that's one of the problems I have with tagging in general. Not only do I have to remember what I used in the past, I also have to guess what others will use. Pre-defined tags, while potentially limiting, are also useful.

I guess the ideal would be to have a set of tags that the conference organisers etc, predict are likely to be used; and then have the option to add others that you think of.
And good prediction, so that unnecessary extras aren't created.

For now, though, I'll follow Frances' lead & have both.

One thing we've done to address this issue with Pathable (http://www.pathable.com/ - like Crowdvine it is another social network for conferences and events) is we use type ahead dropdowns to show other, similar tags to the one you may be typing and how many people are using them. We like to call it "lexicon convergence technology".

I agree with everyone above who thinks that tag suggest would be a big improvement. Hopefully by the next time you use CrowdVine.

I think there's a broader theme that's interesting as well: fuzziness and ambiguity are part of almost every form of social software as they're part of every form of social interactions. Where do we spend our time as software developers and as users? In making sure we agree on our vocabulary or in having social interactions?

We want to make it easier for you to meet, and that means making the software fade into the background. That's a serious duty and an interesting discussion for technologists like yourselves, but don't forget that the killer feature isn't tagging or tag suggest, it's people.

Interesting stuff. I arrived at this page by typing 'alternative to crowdvine' into Google - because I was looking for a solution which deals with the tagging thing differently. If/when I run a conference using networking like this - then what I'd want would fall in between the options I can see available just now. I've looked at CrowdVine, Ning, and thanks to this blog Pathable. None have it quite right for me...

It might help to know that I come from a background of people interested in slightly more fluid conferences/events/non-conferences - using ideas like "World Cafe" or "Open Space Technology".

I'd want everyone attending to fill out a profile giving details of what they are interested in, and what they have to offer - but I'd not be able to ask people to boil this down into 'tags' (at least not tags made up of words of very short phrases). I'd want to let them use longer phrases - after all how do you boil down something like "how is it possible to persuade teachers to welcome children with disabilities" into anything much shorter?

I'm sure that some of the solutions allow long 'tags' like this - but what seems (at first glance) to be missing is the opportunity to show full browsable lists of these tags. I'd want conference attendees to see these lists above everything else - as the main content of the 'home' page for instance.

I like the idea of "lexicon convergence technology" - after all other people might find I've already offered/asked something they can offer/ask too. But the point of the exercise wouldn't be for the software to try to make connections (too difficult) - nor to try to group people.

Now you might say that discussion forums offer what I'm looking for - but they don't, because each participant isn't forced (encouraged) to make a forum post - so, with people being people, quite often nobody will get around to making a post at all.

Anyone know of a way to achieve this? I'm sure I'd not be the only person to use it - and the whole open-space/world-cafe style of working fits in so well with what this kind of software could do well...

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