Taxonomy, Search, Social Networks and Pace-Layering

At the Oz-IA Conference in Sydney during September 2008, I gave a talk about different ways information on the web can be identified and found. The presentation also considered how Pace-Layering theory might be applied to the process of developing websites. The presentation slides are now available on SlideShare.

When presented with concerns about the proposed structure for a site or the labelling of navigation items, clients are increasingly likely to dismiss these concerns with comments like, “It’s not so important anymore since everyone now uses Google.”

Google is a fantastic search tool. It must be, since it can return millions of results for almost any request. The value or relevance of these results is variable, and with more abstract search aims, the number of results may remain high, but their quality in terms of precision and recall often falls dramatically.

With most search results, less than half of all users look beyond the second page, so is a squillion results the optimal pathway to knowledge? Is Google rotting our brains, and our sites? Will the sheer volume of “free” search results force more and more website proprietors to pay for “Google Adwords”?

The social software movement opines the answer lies in moving away from controlled taxonomies in favour of Folksonomies, where users can label and organise information through the use of tags and collaborative bookmarks.

In 2006, I did a research project involving 40 participants with the aim of gaining some insights into the level of awareness of tagging and the different ways people might tag something. Over half of the participants indicated they were unlikely to tag web content sometime in the future.

When preparing this presentation for the Oz-IA conference, I did a follow-up survey into how people use some of the newer features of the web such as blogs, tags and social networking sites. I was also interested compare the extent to which these tools are used by people who work making sites with those who just use web.

A total of 90 people were surveyed from three different categories: web evangelists, web workers (people whose work involves the preparation of websites) and general web users (i.e. people who use the web but are not involved in the preparation of sites).

When it came to actually putting, content, comments on tags onto the web, the evangelists significantly out scored the other two categories when it came to actually putting content, comments or tags onto the web. While this is perhaps not surprising, I felt the difference in this active form of usage between the evangelists and web workers, who just see the web as something that they work with and not some all encompassing passion, was much greater than I would have expected. To quite a large extent it appears that the behaviour of the standard web workers more closely matches that of everyday web users rather than the evangelists.

When it comes to use of web 2.0 tools, a smaller percentage of the general community than we sometimes expect use them, and those who do use them, do so much less often. For more information see the report on the “Use of Web 2.0 Tools survey“.

Over the years, Pace Layering theory (originally proposed by Stewart Brand) has evolved into a broad concept to help us understand the process of change and it is now being applied to a wide range of situations including, the study of human society and the environment, information architecture and user-centred design.

In the Pace Layering view, differing demands and rates of change in each layer of a structure, organisation or environment can result in friction or tension between the layers. Also, new ideas are proposed at the outer most layers and as these filter down through the layers, problems are identified and changes often made with the ultimate aim of influencing the core.

In the presentation I consider how Pace Layering can be applied to the web to describe the process which sees new ideas emerge in the outer layers of the web community and then filter down to the inner layers as then become more widely adopted. In this context, the social software movement with its emerging ideas and rapid rates of change could be viewed as outer layer activity, which given time will eventually filter down to the core and be widely accepted by the wider community of web users.

I feel that Pack Laying theory can be usefully applied to the diverse niches that make up the web community and to help clients and developers see the benefits of considering all options, including social software, when it comes to developing the Information Architecture of a site. The Powerpoint, “Taxonomy, Search, Social Networks and Pace Layering” is on Slideshare.

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