How come information is so hard to organize? For admirable answers to this perennial question, see Val Swisher’s and Mark Baker’s recent posts:
- Structured Content is Like Your Closet (Val)
- Time for Content Management to Come out of the Closet (Mark)
- Thinking About Content in Multiple Dimensions (Val)
Val ends this last post with a request for analogies to replace “information as clothing.” I responded with a comment on her post. Since my blog is about powerful writing, and since writing must be organized to be powerful, I’m sharing an expanded version of my response:
Val’s and Mark’s posts take me back to that Saturday Night Live skit in which the Anal-Retentive Chef spends the whole show regrouping his ingredients—by color, by size, by food group. This guy who lives to be organized can’t get organized. To his never-ending chagrin, he can’t put the same apple in multiple groups—say, a red group and a fruit group—simultaneously. This skit’s hilarity relies on a simple fact: groupings in the physical world are mutually exclusive.
The same mutual exclusivity applies to Val’s information-space-as-closet analogy: a shirt can’t hang in multiple sections at once—red clothes and party clothes, say. This is the limitation of categories (closet sections), as any blogger will tell you.
To break through this limitation, an analogy needs more dimensionality, more flexibility. How about this: information as stars. In outer space, as Mark might say, Every Star Is Star One. (Mark’s blog name, and philosophy on web-based content, is “Every Page Is Page One.”) You can connect and reconnect the stars in an infinite number of groupings—let’s call them constellations—depending on which connections you want to highlight. Go ahead, make up your own constellation. Name it. Why not? Any star can belong to any number of constellations; groupings are not mutually exclusive.
Of course, this analogy (information-as-infinitely-reconfigurable-constellations) breaks down, as analogies will, in that it accounts for only one type of grouping: spacial relationship. Scientists might also want to group stars according to other properties: weight, size, color, etc. You can’t draw lines in space to reveal those kinds of “constellations.”
We’re talking deep, multidimensional dataspace. Organization: the final frontier.
In the blogosphere—so much for my analogy’s originality—tags give writers a dimensional breakthrough in terms of grouping ability. By tags, I mean metadata tags, those little words and phrases that make up tag clouds. I mean those little words that webmasters and bloggers can make up and then apply, judiciously or with abandon, to any given page or post.
- Tags could enable a star to belong to not just an infinite number of groups but also to an infinite number of types of groups.
- Tags could enable a shirt to hang, virtually at least, in more than one closet section.
- Tags could have put the Chef (to our loss) out of his misery.
But tags don’t create organization. Tags (aka “labels” or “facets”) are just tools. Organization comes from the brain. Every Thought Is Thought One.
What’s the best way to string thoughts together? Ah … now we come to it. Answering this question takes something like magic. First, you must answer the questions “for whom” and “to what purpose”—questions that stymie even the most brilliant writers. Then you must deliver.
That’s why organizing hard … information is why … You know.Google+