Aug 17, 2009

Ontology Overrated

Maybe a netizen residing closer to the hump in the bell curve would surf porn, or sports, or something else, but it was a day that might have been in 2007 when I found myself Googling "ontology." That ought to make me an outlier, to use the term Malcolm Gladwell has popularized in his newest best-seller, somebody well outside the hump in the curve, someone out along the fringe.

So be it. I've given up trying to conform, so when I went looking for ontology I didn't really care if that was weird, in fact the weirder the better.

Anyway among the early pages of results was a title that caught my eye, Ontology Is Overrated. (I just looked and as of this moment it's at the top of page two.) Well, this suited me right down to the ground, as my grandmother might have said, so I went-a-looking.

Clay Shirky had written an essay, a blog entry I suppose, although this was before I had any idea what a blog is, pointing out that we humans can't help trying to categorize stuff, or make them fit into ontologies. He talked about how digital is different, and rather than go refresh my memory as to exactly how, I will leave it (as my lazy and/or smart professors used to say) as an exercise for the student.

Suffice to say it opened my eyes. I had been spending lots of time working as an editall in the Open Directory Project, aka DMOZ, and in particular wondering about what might be the best way to organize different categories. Then here comes Shirky, daring to suggest that one reason we're having such trouble with the answer if that we've been asking the wrong question.

Well, this is exactly my cup of tea. I started reading more of Shirky's stuff to find that he had been a busy boy indeed. Calling him prolific is practically like saying snow is sort of white. But, glutton for punishment that I am, I read tons of his essays and finally wrote him an email.

Now, some people who get emails from the public at large must despair of it, and wish the writers would go away. Maybe Shirky feels that way at times, but for whatever reason on this occasion he responded promptly.

After my enthusiastic praise for his ideas and mentioning my work with DMOZ, I had asked if he could recommend any other reading on how digital is changing categorization. After thanking me for my nice comments, he added that I might find Eveything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger instructive and enjoyable.

Since I recognized Weinberger as one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, this started to seem like one of those converging plot points where the music starts rising, only instead of dunh-dunh-dunh like Jaws it was more like birds tweeting and the sun is shining a la Disney. I'm a sucker for stuff that comes my way from more than one place, so I rushed off to get Miscellaneous. Read it, loved it, felt all in-the-know since it was brand new, and more about it another time.

Bonus breadcrumbs: David Weinberger's main blog is Joho the Blog. Shirky's new book, Outliers, is on my nightstand. You may hate sports metaphors but if I say it's in the on-deck circle, can you forgive me? I bought this one, and it will be batter up once I've finished all the library books I have to return. And, I may be a sucker for lots of stuff, but as ZZ Top said, I'm a Fool For Your Stockings. Great beat, I give it a 99.

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