Problems of Social Bookmarking and Social Reading

As there have been more and more discussions about ‚social reading‘ as a new trend in 2011, I will give you my answers to a take home exam I had to write last semester. The question was how ‘social bookmarking’ could be interpreted by different communication theories (based on the textbook Theorizing Communication in the course ‘Theories of and Approaches to Communication and Cultural Science’). My discussion points out several problems of social bookmarking which cover in my opinion social reading and different kinds of knowledge management as well. In the end I will briefly summarize important points of this detailed blog entry.

Semiotic Tradition

The semiotic tradition is my first choice in explaining the new practice of ‘social bookmarking’. This has several reasons: First of all, communication through the lens of semiotic tradition could be described as an ‘intersubjective mediation by signs’ (Craig, 1999: p. 78). I think especially in a computer mediated communication it is interesting to see, what could be regarded as a sign and which new opportunities of communication are thereby given. The second reason for my choice is that semiotics is about the question, how meanings are connected with specific signs. We will see later in the discussion that this process is a very important one for social bookmarking. Last but not least the process of social bookmarking seems to underlie the assumption that signs do have a specific meaning which is decodable in the right way for every person. This is also a very common thought in the semiotic tradition, which I will analyze critically in the end of my discussion.

Discussion

As we take a closer look on the sense behind social bookmarking, we see that it tries to solve an old semiotic paradox of communication in the new medium internet. In the World Wide Web there are billions of web pages, articles and other information in several forms. Due to that the individual is confronted with an informational overload very soon: In order to decide which information is relevant or not, the user has to get the meaning behind the offered signs. But if the user has read for example an article (as a big set of symbols) and gotten the meaning behind it, it is senseless to ask, if the article should be read or not. Because of this paradox it is a very common way to use headlines and to skim through texts with the aim to figure out the most important information (and therefore a first sketch of the meaning). The aim of social bookmarking is now to speed up this process by collecting the most important tags for bookmarks to give a first sketch of its meaning. I think that this so called ‘social tagging’ is establishing some kind of ‘meta meaning’ (meaning about meaning) in two ways. Meta meaning could be established through words on the one side and through numbers on the other side. In the following I will look closer on both opportunities and will then give a closing critique to the lens of semiotic tradition.
A tag about the content behind a specific bookmark is meta meaning through a word. Even though words have to be regarded as symbols and therefore as the most complex sort of signs (Peirce, 1998: p. 178), two special semiotic characteristics have to be pointed out. First of all we have to recognize that meta meaning is a special form of a connection: Picking up Saussure’s theory of a signifier and a signified exemplifies the problem in a good way: If the signified is only a signifier for other meaning, it is very difficult to explain how it is possible to talk about ideas and how we are able to have a meta discourse (what social bookmarking is in some way). It is better to use the theory of Pierce who has said that the connection of meaning is a three sided one: besides the signifier and the signified, we need an idea in which way (which context) the two sides should be connected. But this leads us to another special semiotic characteristic: social bookmarking is only practical if a bookmark is tagged with several words. So the meaning behind a bookmark could only figured out with the combination of several tags. In addition the system of social tagging works only by several users which are giving tags to specific bookmarks independently from each other. What is the problem of this? For a semiotic tradition it has to be a very scary idea, that a meaning (the end product of all tags) is created by several users which are giving tags to a specific bookmark with maybe a more or less other meaning in mind.
Numbers are another class of meta meaning which is giving relevance to tags and bookmarks in social bookmarking systems. By giving the number of people who are sharing a specific bookmark or using a specific word for tagging, some sort of meaning is given to users. They are thinking that the tag or bookmark is more important than others. Again we have the situation, that meaning is created by a big number of participants which maybe haven’t intended such a meaning on their own. Even if millions of people have chosen one bookmark as their favorite one, this meta meaning has nothing to do with the single user of the social bookmark platform. The specific bookmark could have quite another relevance (and therefore meaning) for the single user.
All in all we have seen that there are a lot of questions open to be solved by the semiotic tradition with regard to social bookmark platforms. Especially the question how meaning is created couldn’t be answered in a satisfying way. This is in my opinion a good example that the semiotic tradition fails to point out the connection between language and people who are using (and therefore creating) it. But on the other hand the focus of semiotics is on the language whereby we now have a first impression of one part of the whole picture ‘communication in social bookmark platforms’.

Cybernetic Tradition

It is obvious to choose the cybernetic tradition to analyze social bookmarking. On the one hand social bookmarking is as a form of computer mediated communication very close to the roots of cybernetic tradition and asks the question, how information could be processed in a most efficient way (Craig; Muller, 2007: p. 261). On the other hand fits this tradition very well to the exchange of bookmark-recommendations from one user to another one, which could be regarded as ‘pure information exchange’, a basic claim of cybernetic tradition.

Discussion

With the model of communication from Shannon and Weaver a fundamental new way of interpreting communication was born. Especially for the cybernetic tradition this model had a huge impact. I will present in the following how social bookmark platforms could be understood with the Shannon-Weaver model and which special aspects therefore have to be taken into account. In the end I will close with a short critique of the applicability of the cybernetic tradition regarding social bookmark platforms.
The original Shannon-Weaver model of communication wanted to clarify how information could be processed in an optimal way within telephone systems. Therefore the model differentiates between a sender, a message, a channel and a receiver. It is important to notice, that while the sender is sending the message through a channel interferences could occur. This is the one and only reason, why the receiver could get wrong information and a communication process could fail in the end. Adopting this for social bookmark platforms, we could say that a user is giving a bookmark-recommendation to every person with the same interest. This recommendation (the message) is sent through the channel ‘internet’, or to be more specific ‘online network’. The cybernetic problem could now be described as this: ‘Communication is then successful, when a bookmark-recommendation reaches the persons who are interested in the same topic. This is possible by labeling the bookmark with specific tags.’
This means that in the new model of social bookmark platforms the individual users don’t know in detail which persons are getting the information. But this isn’t really necessary for successful communication in a cybernetic sense. Much more important is the right choice of tags. These tags could be seen as some kind of coding system, like a telephone number. If the sender is using the right arrangement of tags, the system (channel) should be able to reach the right receivers in the end. It is very interesting from a cybernetic perspective to see how this works. Looking deeper in the model we recognize that the information itself is the crucial point. We see that besides the bare information (the bookmark) something like a meta information is needed (to classify the kind of bookmark) as well. Like Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch have already stated we are talking both about the information itself and the way in which this information should be processed (Bateson; Ruesch, 1951: p. 209). Furthermore it is interesting to see, that the meta information is also two-sided in social bookmark systems: on the one hand, it is a description of the bookmark (and therefore which receivers should get it) and on the other hand it is also a description of the senders’ interests (and therefore which information he wants to get from other senders).
After this explanation, one question is left behind: What could the noise in such a system be? Maybe there are too many advertisements on the webpage or the design of it is too complicated, so that the receiver isn’t able to see every relevant recommendation. Errors in the code of the platform or of the operating system of the computer could be regarded as noise as well. For example the whole system (channel) would be really ‘noisy’ (or wouldn’t working at all) if it wouldn’t be able to connect the several tags of different users to specific bookmarks with each other in an appropriate way.
As a conclusion, we could say that the cybernetic tradition fits really well to explain the process of social bookmarking. But on the other side we have seen again, that there are important questions left open: In which way the tags are suitable to connect different users with each other has to be regarded very critical. Even to say, that an unsuitable connection (and therefore an information exchange) is a lack of the right code behind it (and therefore the normal noise in any communication system) seems to be a very unsatisfactory explanation. Rather it has to be assumed that it is a lack of cybernetic tradition not to explain how understanding between human works in detail. It is clear, that communication is much more than a bare information exchange. Like in the first tradition we can conclude with the sentence, that we haven`t seen the whole picture yet, but have gotten a new idea of one part of it.

Sociocultural Tradition

I think the sociocultural tradition is a really suitable perspective regarding social bookmark platforms because this tradition wants to exemplify the communicative relationship between individuals and groups. In my opinion it is especially in computer mediated communication interesting to see how groups are organizing themselves and how they are creating their own social reality which is therefore affecting the individual again.

Discussion

As we have discussed in the section of semiotic tradition already, internet has given us an unbelievable huge range of communication possibilities. Social bookmark platforms are one opportunity to get along with this information overload. Because of the new technological opportunities much more people are able to participate on discussions and to publish their opinions and thoughts. Therefore ‘meanings and personal identities (subject positions) become progressively more fragmented and fluid.’ (Craig; Muller, 2007: p. 367) This is a new challenge for group building and communication in and between such groups. In the following I will describe how social bookmark platforms could be regarded under such circumstances, which problems are arising and how possible solutions could look like. Again I will give a short critique in the end to this specific tradition.
If we regard communication as the modality of structuring (Taylor et al., 2000), every posted bookmark with a certain set of tags assigns a user to a specific group of interest. By giving and getting more and more information about the same topic, a user is getting more and more involved in a specific kind of group. So the first important aspect of a sociocultural point of view is to notice, that communication is a two-sided thing. On the one hand the individual has influence on the communication in a group by choosing certain words. The individual is forming the borders of a group through communication as well as the others do. In social bookmark platforms this could be certain tags which are exemplifying a certain common interest. On the other hand it is obvious that the way a group is practicing communication has a big influence on its group members. For example are specific bookmarks more likely to reach other group members, if their descriptions are fitting to existing and often searched tags. Giving a bookmark a fundamentally new tag would seem to have little chance of reaching other users. This makes two problems of social bookmarking clear: On the one hand it is dangerous to regard the given information as obvious or performed with a ‘higher intelligence’ and on the other hand even if every user has the same right to contribute content, different users will have different weight in a discussion.
The first problem is a very common one in the internet. WebPages with rating systems like amazon.com have lead to an unreflecting believe in the intelligence of the masses (well-known as swarm-intelligence). But this trust isn’t really thought-out in my opinion. As we have seen before, only a specific part counts to a certain group and gives input to it. So it is obvious, that the information (as appropriate it might seem) is biased in some way. Especially in online platforms like social bookmark systems, users are getting more and more information of their own interest (what they have intended of course). Due to the informational overload this is a good thing, but this is leading to some kind of separation in thinking and further communication as well. Another thing which strengthens this process is the second problem: In social tagging systems there will evolve some kind of gatekeepers after a while. Because people could follow bookmark-recommendations of other people and are able to recommend them to their followers, some users will have more weight in giving recommendations than others. This has also two sides: on the one side it helps to cope with an informational overload, on the other side it shows how single users are able to affect the thinking of a whole group.
Taking all these aspects into account we can say that the sociocultural tradition is very suitable to explain macro effects of communication through social bookmark platforms. Especially to figure out possible weaknesses and threads of specific communication tools the sociocultural tradition is very helpful. Nevertheless it wouldn’t be fair to state that this tradition is the best one in analyzing social bookmark platforms. In the end only the lenses of different traditions will allow us to see the whole picture of the specific communication topic.

Conclusion

It was not the aim of this blog entry to condemn social bookmarking or social reading. I rather think that there are several problems which are neglected far too often and could only be figured out by different perspectives of communication theory. In my opinion expectations towards social reading (and knowledge management as well) would be much lower if communication problems would be recognized and acknowledged by everyone. All in all we have seen that:

  • Social bookmarking could be regarded from several different theoretical perspectives. None of them is able to explain the communication process of social bookmarking completely but every perspective helps us to understand the process.
  • Social bookmarking is to some extent overrated. The meta-meaning of tags is difficult to grasp. That ‘higher’ swarm intelligence with a special meaning for individuals follows from several independently given tags seems to be neither inevitable nor probable.
  • Balanced information power is overrated. A never ending and overwhelming stream of information forces us to select certain sources. As explained with the sociocultural tradition new sorts of discussion groups and new sorts of ‘informational leaders’ (or gatekeepers) are emerging.

Taking these points together we can say that it’s true that social bookmarking and social reading could help us to manage more information. But thinking that these platforms will provide everyone with the best combination of all possible information is more or less naïve.

Literature

Bateson, G.; Ruesch, J. (1951): Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry; New York: WW Norton & Co.

Craig, R. T. (1999): „Communication Theory as a Field“; pp. 63-92 in: (Craig; Muller, 2007)

Craig, R. T.; Muller, H. L. (2007): Theorizing Communication: Readings Across Traditions; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Peirce, Ch. S. (1998): „What is a Sign?“; pp. 177-182 in: (Craig; Muller, 2007)

Taylor, J. R., Groleau, C., Heaton, L., & Van Every, E. (2000): The Computerization of Work: A communication Perspective; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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