April 11, 2008

A Lesson on Everything

Okay class, put on your thinking caps! I'm Professor Nguyen, and I'm about to give you a lesson on everything. . . .

Well, I'm not really a professor, and I'm not really going to give you a lesson on everything. This week's assignment calls us grads as Krista wrote in the e-mail: "to post up a brief reflection on your reading, just so the rest of the class [non-grads] can know what's going on this book." We were to begin reading Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. As Krista described in her e-mail, "Weinberger's book spends a lot of time looking at ways humans have historically approached this problem and what transferring so much information into digital environments does for the ways we order it." Before that, she had written, "Over these past couple of months, you've watched us struggle to create some sort of order for all of this information and some way for 13 disparate people to have something like a loosely workable plan." Without further ado, here is my lesson to you on 'everything' and hopefully you'll struggle no more! It is fitting that Weinberger dedicates this book to the librarians, so I am dedicating this lesson to our class. Here we go! . . .

The prologue of Everything is Miscellaneous starts off the book with Weinberger being at the Prototype Lab, which is a full-sized store mock-up of Staples. This type of setting reminded me of my days working at The Limited when I was an undergrad. Weinberger hit it right on with: "In a physical store, ease of access to information can be measured with a pedometer, and each step is precious." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 3) Later on, he asks, "But we all know how reality works, so why worry about what might be possible in some sci-fi alternate universe?" (Weinberger, 2007, p. 6) Answer: "Because the alternative universe exists. Everyday, more of our life is lived there. It's called the digital world." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 6) In the digital world, there is all this information which many probably wonder about the organization of it all.

Weinberger goes into The New Order of Order . . . "For decades we've been buying albums. . . . As soon as we went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from over a thousand record labels. . . . Apple lets customers organize the pile any way they want and markets through their customers' choice of tracks and playlists rather than to the mass market. By making music miscellaneous, Apple has captured more than 70 percent of the market." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 9) BUT ". . . the iTunes store isn't even all that miscellaneous. It's a spreadsheet that can be sorted by the criteria iTunes provides: the track's name, length, artist, album, genre, and price. If you want to browse, first you pick the genre, artist, and album, in that order. If you want to browse by the artist and then by genre, you can't." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 9-10) So iTunes: miscellaneous but not

Weinberger goes on to talk about paper photos vs. digital photos and how we took less pictures with paper photos and more pictures with digital photos. I know I did! I remember with those disposable cameras from the 90's, I planned more carefully on what photos I would take as to not "waste photos". With the digital camera, I just shoot and shoot and shoot. Compared to my hundreds of paper photos, I will have thousands of digital photos in my lifetime, which brings us to the question of organization of the photos. "The user-based organizing of photos is already happening on a massive scale at Internet sites like, where people can post their photos and easily label them, allowing others to search for them. Moreover, anyone can apply descriptive labels to photos and create virtual albums made up of photos taken by themselves and strangers." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 13) Flickr and Facebook are part of our class apps. Similar to Flickr, Facebook allows photos to be labeled and albums to be created. There is also a way in Facebook to tag photos with people's names of whomever is in the photo, and the photos will be added to those persons' Facebook page. My friends have done that, and sometimes I'm like, "Ohmigod!" when I see the pics.

Something else that I was like "Ohmigod!" to was reading in Everything is Miscellaneous the part about the three orders of order (Weinberger, 2007, p. 17-23). It was somewhat confusing, but in summary:
*First order of order: organizing things ourselves (silverware in drawers, books on shelves, photos into albums)
*Second order of order: separating information about the objects from the objects themselves (catalog listing entries alphabetically by subject so you could find the object)
*Third order of order: digital order (removes the limitations of 'paper-based labeling' in how we organize information--i.e. we don't need Avery labels and printer ink toner for digital ordering)

In closing, I leave you with this . . . "Beyond alphabetical order is the purely miscellaneous: Every idea is browsable and ideas are instantly assembled into [outlines and listings] relevant to each person's particular needs and way of thinking. This is the world the digital order is creating." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 32) The focus is on you and your individual needs. You are everything! . . . and this has been a lesson on 'everything'. Thank you, class!

Order of Orders

This week’s readings were all about organizing and categorizing in both the physical world and the digital world.

For a little background, on page 17 of Everything is Miscellaneous, Weinberger introduces the idea of orders of order (and uses a group of photos called the Bettmann Archive as an example):

  • In the first order of order, we organize physical objects.
  • In the second order of order, you physically organize stuff (e.g., card catalogs, ledgers) about the physical objects. It’s the stuff that helps you keep the physical items organized.
  • In the third order of order, you are organizing electronic bits of information using preferred terms, descriptions, and tags.

    Along with this idea is a theme that shows up in both books “…in the physical world, two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time? (Weinberger, 4), and “Physical objects can typically be in only one place at one time? (Information Architecture, Morville and Rosenfeld, 221). Because of this “brute fact,? the people who work with physical objects have to, first, use the first order of order to carefully decide how and where to put them, and then secondly, use the second order of order to figure out how to keep track of all of it.

    How to do this organizing has apparently been a time-consuming, thought-provoking problem for a long time. In Information Architecture, all of chapter 9 is devoted to ways of organizing information using thesaurui, classifications, etc. in order to find other information. It touches on the old (Dewey Decimal System) to new (metadata tags and navigation).

    But now, with so much information being put online, organizing is obviously very different. This leads Weinberger to suppose “…now, for the first time in history, we are able to arrange our concepts without the silent limitations of the physical? (Weinberger, 7). The physical objects aren’t really there—it’s just bits of information, which is where the third order of order takes over.

    When the object is digital, a piece of data can show up in multiple spots and be found through multiple methods such as keywords, hierarchy, or even misspellings. Flickr or tags can lead the way, as can metadata, a thesaurus, a synonym ring, or one of the many other ways information is organized online.

    Weinberger says, “As we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world freed from physical constraints, information doesn’t just want to be free. It wants to be miscellaneous? (7). There doesn’t have to be a direct path to one location like there would be in finding photo in the Bettmann Archive (Weinberger, 17). The miscellaneous way is using one of the many ways to find a digital photo in the Corbis online catalog of images (Weinberger, 20).

  • Thinking out of order

    Can I organize my thoughts about Everything is Miscellaneous anyway I want?

    Words the up mix what when happens if I? Not. Happens what if when the words up mix I? Nope, not quite. If when the words I mix up what happens? Hmmm. That’s semi-intelligible. What happens when I mix up the words? One limitation is that words must have a minimal degree of organization to say something meaningful. What makes words meaningful? Words are meaningful when they express something that people can understand. How many people must understand something for it to qualify as meaningful?

    I think the Internet is a good metaphor for the epistemology of social constructionism. And the Wild West. There’s no center. There’s no edge. There’s hardly any laws and the authorities are indistinguishable from the rest of us. Where are the knowledge authorities out there? Who’s in charge?

    Order on the Internet looks like a tag cloud. It comes from hundreds or 10 or thousands or 13 baker’s dozen individuals who read something and encode that document with a tag that says “This means this to me.? The big words in tag clouds show emergent consensus. Consensus becomes order that indicates what people have agreed they know about something. On the Internet, the social construction of knowledge is visible. Groups of us agree that something means this or that, that it’s true or false. Tag clouds illustrate the process.

    Weinberger believes that how we organize the world reflects not only the world but our interests, our passions, our needs, our dreams (pg. 39). Cultures influenced by ancient Greek epistemology, such as ours in the U.S., reflect our belief in a natural order. There are laws governing the physical world. Knowledge results from discovering those laws. Our system of ordering knowledge itself reflects the physical world (pg. 6).

    The problem with our epistemological tradition, according to Weinberger, is that it is subjected to the same limitations as the physical world. Material things and information we use to order them can exist in only one place at a time, they require space, are relatively unstable, and expensive and time-consuming to maintain (pg. 17).

    Compare, for example, the cost of maintaining the digital vs. the print collections of vintage photos the Library of Congress just placed on flickr. Consider the issue of access: how many people can simultaneously look at the photos on flickr compared to how many can look at the prints in the library. How many people knew the photographs existed before they appeared on flickr?

    Weinberger argues that we place a high value on creating order because we equate order with beauty (pg. 34) and efficiency (pg. 12). I believe that order also means control—or at least the appearance of it. Those who create order have control and control creates power.

    Web 2.0 technology allows ordinary people like me to do what only experts did before. If I want, I can be a cataloger without a library science degree. All I need is access to flickr and a tutorial in tagging to start cataloging the Library of Congress photos. If I want, I can be a journalist without professional training. All I need is information and some ideas and Internet access to any of hundreds of citizen media websites or a blog.

    Using Web 2.0 technology opens new possibilities for how we order information and knowledge itself. It’s creating sort of a bloodless but not painless revolution: citizen librarians and citizen journalists threaten the experts. And the experts are used to having control and the benefits that come with power—mainly in the form of jobs.

    I am still overwhelmed by the infinity of the Internet. It’s counter-intuitive to me that the answer to too much information is more information, as Weinberger suggests (pg. 13). I feel daunted by a tag cloud like ours on For me, the information is too flat, too diluted. I want to narrow the subjects so they are more focused. Or what about receiving 4,872,399 results on a Google search? To use that information, to find what I need its necessary to narrow the choices …

    On the other hand, I appreciate the value of organizing books, photos or music however I want because the order meets my personal interests. I’m sure it’s good for business too. But in those cases, I don’t have to think about anyone but myself. It doesn’t matter if the order I’m creating is useful to others. Ironically, it seems to me that the need to share contradicts the highly custom ordering Web 2.0 technologies make possible. How do we collectively create and share information effectively and efficiently?

    Now I’m back to my initial pondering about meaning. Meaning happens when people share an understanding. As the Web 2.0 revolution continues, I think we’ll need to find a good balance between the personal and the collective, the amateur and the expert even as we reconsider the definitions of those roles.


    April 7, 2008

    2.0 book cataloging

    I've been wondering whether cataloging for libraries couldn't be done socially a la flickr ... then I read about the Library of Congress project allowing the public to tag 2 large collections of vintage photos posted on flickr. The Library views the project as an experiment. How cool is that?

    Then I read our assignment from Everything is Miscellaneous and he made it seem like not only would social cataloging be feasible but maybe even better than conventional systems. By way of looking for resources on citizen journalism, I came across Weinberger's blog by the same name and happened upon a link to a site called It's site for people to list their books and among other things tag and sort them.

    Not only is everything miscellaneous, it's already been done!