Landscape architects and park planners go to great pains to ensure visitors to their spaces can get from point A to point B with ease. Carefully paved paths are laid out between the duck pond, the information kiosk and the hot dog stand to make sure people don’t get lost, traipse through the mud or walk on the grass. Yet, despite the best efforts to anticipate pedestrian’s needs, people will always want to go somewhere else and will have their own way of getting there. Soon a new route emerges as a trail of bare, packed dirt. These informal pathways, or desire lines, usually emerge in close proximity to “official” routes. Often they will actually cross paved sidewalks and clearly marked roads. This does not necessarily mean that the planners and architects got it wrong. You just can’t always force people to walk where you want them to walk.
Desire lines emerge in information spaces just as they do in physical spaces. Even the cleverest information architecture and the most insightful taxonomies will not mesh seamlessly and comprehensively with the mental models of each and every user. Manifestations of this fact range from sticky-note cheat sheets on computer monitors to private bookmarks for the important parts of an intranet. Whether it is finding a shortcut through the park or a shortcut through a filing system, people make sense of their environment and how they navigate through it in their own way.
An interesting aspect of desire lines in public places is that they reflect an unspoken consensus. If one person walks across a lawn, their trail will disappear. The only way for that shortcut to grow into a permanent, if informal, path is for it to be consistently trodden for a reasonable length of time by a significant number of people. This same dynamic is at work in our information spaces as well in the form of tagging and folksonomy.
I’ve written about folksonomies on several occasions (a chunk of this post is excerpted from my book Building Enterprise Taxonomies) and not always in the most positive terms. I’ve tended to side with Thomas Vander Wal who has referred to tag clouds as “the things that are cute but provide little value.” More recently, however, I’ve started to rethink user tagging and emergent vocabularies as worthy of a bit more respect.
In the book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand proposes that buildings and societies are comprised of several layers that each grow or evolve at their own rate. Consider a house. You may change the pictures and decorations on the walls every few weeks as the whim strikes you. Painting those walls takes a bit more effort and so may only be done every year or so. Putting in a new carpet or wood floor might happen every five years. Adding a room is a very rare occurrence and the foundation of the house itself will probably not change throughout the life of the home. This notion of varying levels of stability and volatility, which Brand calls pace layering, is as relevant to information spaces as it is to cities and brick-and-mortar buildings. In any complex system, as Brand notes in another book, the fast layers propose and innovate; the slow layers absorb and stabilize.
The Information Architecture of a website and the core metadata supporting search are worth considerable investment in time and resources. Semantic integration, system scalability, targeted promotion and relationship continuity all require planning and stability. Blogs, reviews, ratings and consumer content require flexibility and responsiveness. Designers and Information architects have acknowledged this and are adopting this pace layering world view.
This view reconciles the rigid world of formal metadata and taxonomy with the anarchy of free-tagging and folksonomy. Peter Morville sums up this view nicely in his book Ambient Findability
But that’s the beauty of the boundary object we call metadata. We don’t have to choose. Ontologies, taxonomies, and folksonomies are not mutually exclusive. In many contexts, such as corporate web sites, the formal structure of ontologies and taxonomies is worth the investment. In others, like the blogosphere, the casual serendipity of folksonomies is certainly better than nothing. And in some contexts, such as intranets and knowledge networks, a hybrid metadata ecology that combines elements of each may be ideal.
User tagging and the emergent folksonomies they engender are particular suited to the faster layers of an information space, but can also inform the more stable layers. Tag clouds give a good snap shot of the current focus of a website or conversation as its emphasis changes over time. As a particular topic grows in importance its corresponding tag becomes more prominent in the tag cloud. Of course this assumes a consistent vocabulary and application of tags, but if your audience does begin to converge on a particular term of classification that your design does not formally include, it can be formally adopted and integrated into your information architecture. This bubble-up dynamic will help keep the environment relevant to a changing community.
Acknowledging and managing the tensions between providing a stable environment and the changing needs of users is a tricky balance and yet it is critical to the ongoing success of any information ecosystem. There is a dangerous flip-side to the enlivening aspects Brand’s pace layering. In explaining the dynamics between the different layers of a structure he said, “because of the different rates of change of its components, a building is always tearing itself apart” Our information environments will change and evolve despite our best efforts to maintain the structure we have labored so long and hard to create. Rather than guardians of stability we should become shepherds of evolution, watching for insight and innovation, discarding the chaff while preserving, incorporating and promoting the useful.