Some ideas about tags, categories, and metadata for online commonplace books and search

Earlier this morning I was reading The Difference Between Good and Bad Tags and the discussion of topics versus objects got me thinking about semantics on my website in general.

People often ask why WordPress has both a Category and a Tag functionality, and to some extent it would seem to be just for this thing–differentiating between topics and objects–or at least it’s how I have used it and perceived others doing so as well. (Incidentally from a functionality perspective categories in the WordPress taxonomy also have a hierarchy while tags do not.) I find that I don’t always do a great job at differentiating between them nor do I do so cleanly every time. Typically it’s more apparent when I go searching for something and have a difficult time in finding it as a result. Usually the problem is getting back too many results instead of a smaller desired subset. In some sense I also look at categories as things which might be more interesting for others to subscribe to or follow via RSS from my site, though I also have RSS feeds for tags as well as for post types/kinds as well.

I also find that I have a subtle differentiation using singular versus plural tags which I think I’m generally using to differentiate between the idea of “mine” versus “others”. Thus the (singular) tag for “commonplace book” should be a reference to my particular commonplace book versus the (plural) tag “commonplace books” which I use to reference either the generic idea or the specific commonplace books of others. Sadly I don’t think I apply this “rule” consistently either, but hope to do so in the future.

I’ve also been playing around with some more technical tags like math.NT (standing for number theory), following the lead of arXiv.org. While I would generally have used a tag “number theory”, I’ve been toying around with the idea of using the math.XX format for more technical related research on my site and the more human readable “number theory” for the more generic popular press related material. I still have some more playing around with the idea to see what shakes out. I’ve noticed in passing that Terence Tao uses these same designations on his site, but he does them at the category level rather than the tag level.

Now that I’m several years into such a system, I should probably spend some time going back and broadening out the topic categories (I arbitrarily attempt to keep the list small–in part for public display/vanity reasons, but it’s relatively easy to limit what shows to the public in my category list view.) Then I ought to do a bit of clean up within the tags themselves which have gotten unwieldy and often have spelling mistakes which cause searches to potentially fail. I also find that some of my auto-tagging processes by importing tags from the original sources’ pages could be cleaned up as well, though those are generally stored in a different location on my website, so it’s not as big a deal to me.

Naturally I find myself also thinking about the ontogeny/phylogeny problems of how I do these things versus how others at large do them as well, so feel free to chime in with your ideas, especially if you take tags/categories for your commonplace book/website seriously. I’d like to ultimately circle back around on this with regard to the more generic tagging done from a web-standards perspective within the IndieWeb and Microformats communities. I notice almost immediately that the “tag” and “category” pages on the IndieWeb wiki redirect to the same page yet there are various microformats including u-tag-of and u-category which are related but have slightly different meanings on first blush. (There is in fact an example on the IndieWeb “tag” page which includes both of these classes neither of which seems to be counter-documented at the Microformats site.) I should also dig around to see what Kevin Marks or the crew at Technorati must surely have written a decade or more ago on the topic.


cc: Greg McVerry, Aaron Davis, Ian O’Byrne, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Cherfas

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👓 About | Eric Rasmusen’s Weblog

Highlighted About by Eric RasmusenEric Rasmusen (Eric Rasmusen's Weblog)

This weblog is mainly for myself, used as a commonplace book in which I put ideas, quotations, facts, and citations that I might want to use later. That’s why the topics are diverse and often esoteric. I’m not trying to build an audence or get a lot of hits on a counter. My impression is that most visitors arrive because search engines have led them to here and I’m one of the few websites in the world that address some key word they’re interested in.

Since I am not writing for other people, especially (you will see the exceptions—things such as posts I also use as comments on other blogs, excerpts from letters or articles I have written or will write, and so forth), please do not think I am deliberately trying to offend someone or that I am cleverly pushing a hidden agenda. I’m not, simply because I don’t expect enough people to read this blog for such efforts to be worthwhile. Actually, I probably shouldn’t even fix my typos, and perhaps I’ll stop doing that. You’re weclome to read, and I’ll try to write well simply to avoid getting into bad habits, but I’ll not expend more effort than if I were writing this into a hidden fil in my PC.

An excellent statement on an About page in which someone explicitly states that they use their site as a commonplace book and do so primarily for themselves.

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Reply to Equity Unbound Webcomic: Splintered Digital Identities | Kevin Hodgson

Replied to Equity Unbound Webcomic: Splintered Digital Identities by Kevin HodgsonKevin Hodgson (dogtrax.edublogs.org)
I am dipping into Equity Unbound, a new online course/collaboration with Mia Zamora, Maha Bali and Catherine Cronin. They will be working with university students as well as opening things up to other spaces where folks, like you and me, can jump in. (The Twitter tag is here: #unboundeq)  I am always interested in seeing how new offerings can be riffs off previous open learning networks, such as NetNarr, Rhizo, Digiwrimo, CLMOOC, and others.

Kevin, your comic really resonates, particularly for someone who’s got over 200 social media related accounts and identity presences in various places on the internet.

It reminds me of a line I wrote a few months back in an article about the IndieWeb idea of Webmentions for A List Apart entitled Webmentions: Enabling Better Communication on the Internet:

Possibly worst of all, your personal identity on the internet can end up fragmented like so many horcruxes across multiple websites over which you have little, if any, control.

Inherent in this idea is that corporate interests and others who run social sites can disappear, delete, or moderate out of existence any of my writing, photos, audio, video, or other content into the memory hole at any time and for almost any reason. And just like a destroyed horcrux, their doing so takes a bit of my soul (identity) with it each time.

A few years back, I decided to take back my own identity on the web and post everything of interest to me on my own website on my own domain first–a digital commonplace book if you will. Only then do I syndicate it into other communities, websites, or areas as needed. (Even this reply is on my own site before I syndicate it to yours.) As a result, I own a tremendously large part of my online identity (though even at that, a lot of it is published privately for myself or select small audiences).

I hope that as Equity Unbound continues and we explore the ideas of identity, public/private, and related topics, people might consider some of these ideas and implications and potentially work on expanding solutions for students, teachers, and the rest of the world.

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📑 Standard Notes | Nelson’s Log

Highlighted Standard Notes (Nelson's log)
I love the voice of their help page. Someone very opinionated (in a good way) is building this product. I particularly like this quote: Your data is a liability to us, not an asset.  
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👓 The Verge at work: backing up your brain | The Verge

Read The Verge at work: backing up your brain (The Verge)
The Verge at Work is a series about process. We’re not scientists, and we’re not gurus, we’re just trying to get some work done. The solutions presented here are highly personal, and highly personalized. Not the only way, but our way. Writing about the history of commonplace books in The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton notes that readers in early modern England, from the layperson to famous minds like Francis Bacon and John Milton, “read in fits,” moving from book to book, grabbing bites, consuming and rearranging them. They’d transcribe and revisit notable passages in their commonplace books as a way to further comprehend the written word. Darnton writes, “[Reading and writing] belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.” Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush imagined a hypertext information machine (a memex) in his essay ‘As We May Think’ that would act as an “intimate supplement” to memory. Bush imagined a desk-sized machine for keeping track of a user’s books, records, and communications, tracking what you read and your notes like a modern day version of the commonplace book. Years after reading a book or writing down a note, the user would be able to return to it, tracing written thoughts in “trails” that can be recalled, shared, and stored. “Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race,” Bush wrote, surely unaware of where hypertext would take us.
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A reply to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Why Not Blog?

Replied to Why Not Blog? by Kathleen FitzpatrickKathleen Fitzpatrick (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)

My friend Alan Jacobs, a key inspiration in my return (such as it is, so far) to blogging and RSS and a generally pre-Twitter/Facebook outlook on the scholarly internet, is pondering the relationship between blogging and other forms of academic writing in thinking about his next project. Perhaps needless to say, this is something I’m considering as well, and I’m right there with him in most regards.

But there are a few spots where I’m not, entirely, and I’m not sure whether it’s a different perspective or a different set of experiences, or perhaps the latter having led to the former.

I really like where you’re coming from on so many fronts here (and on your site in general). Thanks for such a great post on a Friday afternoon. A lot of what you’re saying echos the ideas of many old school bloggers who use their blogs as “thought spaces“. They write, take comments, iterate, hone, and eventually come up with stronger thoughts and theses. Because of the place in which they’re writing, the ideas slowly percolate and grow over a continuum of time rather than spring full-formed seemingly from the head of Zeus the way many books would typically appear to the untrained eye. I’ve not quite seen a finely coalesced version of this idea though I’ve seen many dance around it obliquely. The most common name I’ve seen is that of a “thought space” or sometimes the phrase “thinking out loud”, which I notice you’ve done at least once. In some sense, due to its public nature, it seems like an ever-evolving conversation in a public commons. Your broader idea and blogging experience really make a natural progression for using a website to slowly brew a book.

My favorite incarnation of the idea is that blogs or personal websites are a digital and public shared commonplace book. Commonplaces go back to the 15th century and even certainly earlier, but I like to think of websites as very tech-forward versions of the commonplaces kept by our forebears.

I’ve seen a few educators like Aaron Davis and Ian O’Byrne take to the concept of a commonplace, though both have primary websites for writing and broader synthesis and secondary sites for collecting and annotating the web. I tend to aggregate everything (though not always published publicly) on my primary site after having spent some time trying not to inundate email subscribers as you’ve done.

There’s also a growing movement, primarily in higher education, known as A Domain of One’s Own or in shortened versions as either “Domains” or even #DoOO which is a digital take on the Virgina Woolf quote “Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”

There are a growing number of educators, researchers, and technologists reshaping how the web is used which makes keeping an online commonplace much easier. In particular, we’re all chasing a lot of what you’re after as well:

Part of what I’m after is consolidating my presence online as much as possible, especially onto platforms that I can control.

To me, this sounds like one of the major pillars of the IndieWeb movement which is taking control of the web back from corporate social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et. al. Through odd serendipity, I came across your micro.blog account this morning which led me to your website. A lot of the underpinnings of micro.blog are informed by the IndieWeb movement. In many subtle ways, I might suspect the two had a lot of influence on your particular choice of WordPress theme.

Tonight I’ve also seen your reply to Dan Cohen’s question:

I had previously replied to Dan’s original question, but somehow missed your side thread at the time. I suspect you didn’t see our branch of the conversation either.

Interestingly, your presumption that the replies/notifications stay within their own domains isn’t necessarily fait accompli, at least not any more. There’s a new web specification in the past few years called Webmention that allows notifications and replies to cross website boundaries unlike Twitter @mentions which are permanently stuck within Twitter. Interestingly, because of the way you’ve set up your WordPress website to dovetail with micro.blog you’re almost 90 percent of the way to supporting it easily. If you add and slightly configure the Webmention and Semantic Linkbacks plugins, the asides and other content you’re syndicating into micro.blog will automatically collect the related conversation around them back to your own posts thus allowing you to have a copy of your content on your own website as well as the surrounding conversation, which is no longer as diffuse as you imagined it needed to be. Here’s an example from earlier this evening where I posted to my site and your response (and another) on micro.blog came back to me. (Sadly there’s a Gravatar glitch preventing the avatars from displaying properly, but hopefully I’ll solve that shortly.)

This same sort of thing can be done with Twitter including native threading and @mentions, if done properly, by leveraging the free Brid.gy service to force Twitter to send your site webmentions on your behalf. (Of course this means you might need to syndicate your content to Twitter in a slightly different manner than having micro.blog do on your behalf, but there are multiple ways of doing this.)

I also notice that you’ve taken to posting copies of your tweeted versions at the top of your comments sections. There’s a related IndieWeb plugin called Syndication Links that is made specifically to keep a running list of the places to which you’ve syndicated your content. This plugin may solve a specific need for you in addition to the fact that it dovetails well with Brid.gy to make sure your posts get the appropriate comments back via webmention.

I’m happy to help walk you through setting up some of the additional IndieWeb tech for your WordPress website if you’re interested. I suspect that having the ability to use your website as a true online hub in addition to doing cross website conversations is what you’ve been dreaming about, possibly without knowing it. Pretty soon you’ll be aggregating and owning all of your digital breadcrumbs to compile at a later date into posts and eventually articles, monographs, and books.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s a growing group of us in the education/research fields that are continually experimenting and building new functionalities for online (and specifically academic) communication. I and a plethora of others would welcome you to join us on the wiki, in chat, or even at upcoming online or in-person events.

In any case, thanks for sharing your work and your thoughts with the world. I wish more academics were doing what you are doing online–we’d all be so much richer for it. I know this has been long and is a potential rabbithole you may disappear into, so thank you for the generosity of your attention.

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