Things have been a bit slow at the library lately, as often happens in the summer when the weather is good, and so I’ve been getting to some of the far back burner items on my list. Today I decided I should check out my toread list in del.icio.us. (You may already be thinking that this was a bad idea, and possibly it was, although it is not nearly as bad an idea (so far) as the time a couple of summers ago when I decided I wanted to reorganize all my tags. Don’t do that. Trust me.)
My del.icio.us account started in July 2005, just a few months after I started blogging. Today I’ve looked at some of the very first things I tagged to read and some of the most recent ones, and I’m struck both by how charmingly archaic early articles on folksonomies have become and by how relevant some of the ideas still are. User tagging of the catalog is not something that has really taken off, but user generated content in other areas has become incredibly valuable. I can’t imagine how I ever figured out what sort of consumer electronics products to buy in the days before Amazon reviews.
One of the newer things I’m reading, which I’ve really only started to peruse, is The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. In the first essay of the collection, James G. Webster talks about how technology has brought about media fragmentation — we now have hundreds of cable channels and millions of websites where once we had only three networks. According to the fragmentation theorists, mass culture is now over, and technology is taking us all to the skinny end of that long tail, where we’ll all get just exactly the things we’re looking for but won’t have anything in common with society as a whole.
That’s a seductive argument, to be sure, but what struck me as I read about that and thought back to when I first heard of folksonomies is that in some ways, the technology that has developed alongside the idea of a folksonomy has actually the effect of bringing us back together. Consider, for instance, hashtags in Twitter. The election in Iran became a mass culture event in large part because of new media. People around the world were able to follow minute by minute news direct from Iran thanks to #iranelection. They were able to turn their avatars green and look at all the other people with green avatars and feel like they were a part of something. (I’m not, for the moment, interested in debating whether that actually constitutes doing something or being a part of it — the point here is that for the people involved, it clearly did feel that way.)
It’s true that watching a trending topic on Twitter is not the same kind of mass culture experience that, say, listening to Walter Cronkite give the latest body count from Vietnam was, and I doubt the numbers are anywhere close to the kind of viewership the evening news once had. But it is, I think, evidence that technology can gather as well as it can fragment, and I find that fascinating.