25 February 2006

Social Tagging For The Enterprise

Web 2.0 technologies will promote and enable fundamental changes on intranets. They will alleviate many user "frustrations" with their intranet environment, such as useless search capabilities, email overload, rigid taxonomies, etc.. A peculiar difficulty, however, facing forward-looking IT (or business user) early adopters of Web 2.0 technologies is the fact that Web 2.0 is often "the web as a platform": That web is, currently, mostly the Internet as opposed to intranets. Some resources are only available through an Internet connection. Often, these resources are unavailable due to lack of connectivity to the Internet, corporate firewalls or corporate policy. The larger the corporation, the most likely there will be challenging obstacles.

What of eureka moments, then? How can we exploit moments of clarity when encountering great web 2.0 technologies that feel like a natural extension of the way we "think", of the way we work? One such technology is social tagging (or "social bookmarking"), best exemplified with del.icio.us and many articles illustrating how to best exploit social tagging, such as this one by Marshall Kirkpatrick and this one by Brendon Connelly, and others that go in more depth on topic, such as "Folksonomies: Tidying up Tags?" by Marieke Guy and Emma Tonkin - introduction of the article quoted here:

A folksonomy is a type of distributed classification system. It is usually created by a group of individuals, typically the resource users. Users add tags to online items, such as images, videos, bookmarks and text. These tags are then shared and sometimes refined. A general review of social bookmarking tools, one popular use area of folksonomies, was given in the April edition of D-Lib [ref omitted]. In the article the authors elaborate on the approach taken by social classification systems and the motivators behind tagging. They write, "...tags are just one kind of metadata and are not a replacement for formal classification systems such as Dublin Core, MODS, etc.... Rather, they are a supplemental means to organise information and order search results."

In this article we look at what makes folksonomies work. We agree with the premise that tags are no replacement for formal systems, but we see this as being the core quality that makes folksonomy tagging so useful. We begin by looking at the issue of "sloppy tags", a problem to which critics of folksonomies are keen to allude, and ask if there are ways the folksonomy community could offset such problems and create systems that are conducive to searching, sorting and classifying. We then go on to question this "tidying up" approach and its underlying assumptions, highlighting issues surrounding removal of low-quality, redundant or nonsense metadata, and the potential risks of tidying too neatly and thereby losing the very openness that has made folksonomies so popular.

I have recently come across two interesting options for introducing social tagging into corporate and governmental intranets. The first is a platform developed by IBM, the second is a Free and Open Source Software ("FOSS" - on FOSS in the Canadian Government see the applicable Treasury Board of Canada FOSS guidelines) module for PHP/MySQL applications.

First, in the corporate environment, IBM has moved forward by developing "dogear", an enterprise-scale social bookmarking system. David Millen, Jonathan Feinberg and Bernard Kerr, from IBM, have written an excellent article based on the following query:
The apparent success of Internet-based social bookmarking applications begs the question of whether large enterprises or organizations would also benefit from social bookmarking systems. To investigate this question, at IBM we are designing and developing an enterprise-scale social bookmarking system called dogear. The rest of this article describes the design challenges and early lessons learned from a friendly trial of the technology.
Their article briefly describes the evolution of personal bookmarks into social bookmarks and the common features of social bookmarking systems. More importantly, the article describes desirable features in order for social bookmarking communities to successfully develop:
  • Identity and Transparency. del.icio.us allows users to choose pseudonyms instead of real names. In an enterprise context, IBM has chosen to implement dogear using real names: "real-name identity would facilitate communication among users of the application since the various corporate collaboration tools (e.g., corporate directories, e-mail, chat,) all use real-name identities. There is also a strong cultural norm within the organization to use more formal names within corporate applications." It seems that the IBM team has struck an optimal balance on several decision points for identity and transparency, for example, by enabling both public and private bookmarking and by implementing team-based and role-based collections. I agree with the authors that these decisions are not easy to make. In their own words: "The decisions to use real-name identity and to support private bookmarks were made with some trepidation. The success of social software applications, in general, requires participation to reach critical mass to provide value to users and to ensure a sustainable level of contribution and vibrant interaction. Real-name identity may discourage some people from using the system, and private bookmarks will significantly reduce the benefits of information sharing among users. For a large enterprise, however, we believe that the ability to reach critical mass will not present a problem."
  • Alerting and Discovery. A very useful feature of social bookmarking systems consists in being alerted whenever a resource is added by a user, when a resource has been tagged with a keyword of interest, or any combination thereof. del.icio.us offers RSS feeds in order to deliver this requirement. IBM has adopted the same approach, potentially moving the corporate world closed to a 2006 prediction that "everything will get an RSS feed" (see prediction no 5 by Dion Hinchcliffe!)...
  • Designing for Extensibility: Enterprise Remixing. The design of the IBM system encourages enterprise remixing "by giving potential exploiters a number of easily parsed data formats from which to choose".
  • Exploiting the Links. An enterprise bookmarking system, over time, represents an inherent assessment of valued information resources. Collections of links can be exploited by the enterprise to (a) augment enterprise search applications, as such collections constitute "search collections" within the meaning of this earlier post; (b) supplement directory information about a particular user; and (c) to augment workgroup online content.
The authors are excited about the prospects of dogear and I share in their excitement - and hope dogear will make it to fruition soon! (and where is the IBM dogear public blog anyway?!)

Here is a snapshot dogear's interface:

Second, another promising way of introducing social bookmarking in a corporate or governmental context is to exploit Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), such as Freetag, released under both BSD and GNU Lesser GPL library license (see license for details):
Freetag is an easy tagging and folksonomy-enabled plugin for use with MySQL-PHP applications. It allows you to create tags on existing database schemas, and access and manage your tags through a robust API.
Hopefully, there will be an increasing number of "social bookmarking for the enterprise" options in the coming months.