4 May 2005 10 am edt

Remove Forebrain and Serve: Tag Clouds II

In “Tag Clouds are the New Mullets” (Daily Report, 19 April 2005), I claimed that the weighted tag clouds meme popularized by Flickr and Technorati was about to cross a permanent shame threshold because of overuse. My comment suggested that the only sin of tag clouds was popularity. But the problems with tag clouds run deeper.

In the 1960s, Steve Reich created a new kind of music by playing identical audio tapes on two players and letting them slowly drift out of synch. Ten years later, Brian Eno generated much ambient music by putting tape loops to a similar use. Eno, an accomplished pop music composer, said at the time that he had become more interested in process than product. Eno didn’t compose Discreet Music, the technology did (or so he claimed). This once avante-garde reliance on process works better as art than as architecture.

We who make websites must strike a fine balance between guiding our users and allowing them to lead us. We listen but we also synthesize and invent. We conduct user research but we interpret the results. We ask what users want but we decide what they are really telling us — and we, not they, determine how best to fulfill the needs they didn’t necessarily realize they were articulating.

Tag clouds remove the guidance and artistry from our side of the equation, offloading all the work to our users. What’s popular? What’s important? Users decide. This might be okay if the process did not create a false intellectual equivalence between high- and low-level topics, and if it did not skew toward popularity at the expense of findability.

The idea behind tag clouds is that users know best. Their actions determine how other users navigate. Their choices leave a trail. Typically, though not always, the “important” topics get big while those considered less important (which in this case only means less popular) get small. Once they get small enough, they disappear.

In Flickr and Technorati, users create their own tags (“design,” “cats,” “California”). When enough people have used the same tag, it begins to show up in the cloud. Once a lot of people have used it, it becomes a visually dominant element, encouraging others to click it — and subtly discouraging them from creating their own tags.

As tag clouds come to replace expert taxonomies in common practice, carefully constructed hierarchies vanish. In their place is a flattened world where every idea, at any level, is a topic as worthy as any other. Eight Mile is a topic at the same level as Detroit, which is a topic at the same level as Cities, which is a topic at the same level as United States, and so on.

Instead of a hierarchy based on user-centered classification systems, the tag cloud “hierarchy” is based on raw usage. If several citizens of Detroit view a collection of photos tagged Eight Mile, upload their own photos of that street, and tag their photos Eight Mile, then Eight Mile becomes an important — and visible — category. If no one visits what would ordinarily be a “master” topic page such as Cities or United States, then those master categories shrink in size until they are invisible.

The intellectual problem is that tag clouds create a data world where subtopics are detached from their parents; where the very notion of parent/child relations no longer exists. The counter-argument is, who cares? If everyone digs Eight Mile, let’s make Eight Mile easy to find. Instead of relying on humans to mine the data every three months and have long tedious arguments about how to update the navigation, let’s allow software to do it in real time, based on actual user behavior. Let the process create the music. There is merit to this view, especially on the community sites from which it sprang. (There is no merit to it on single-author sites, where one person creates all the content and all the tags. If you don’t have a clear purpose for your site, who does?)

The less brainy and more pressing problem is that with tag clouds, topics either gain immediate, widespread traction with the public, or they disappear from the cloud. Once they disappear, it is as if they no longer exist. Few users will ever find them. Network effects being exponential, what is immediately mildly popular quickly becomes artificially very popular, while what has yet to become popular never will be.

In an ordinary IA structure, if a photo site contains pictures of Istanbul’s Taksim area, a user can find those pictures by clicking through a taxonomy based on the way folks look for such stuff (Turkey: Istanbul: Taksim). What are the odds of finding Taksim in a tag cloud? Unless the site is devoted to Istanbul nightlife, it’s unlikely that any user will ever find those photos, because they will not be popular enough to show up in the cloud. If the site’s goal is to let only the most popular stuff float to the top, then tag clouds work like James Brown. But if its goal is to offer a better way of letting users find any content they desire, then tag clouds are as wrong as the Patriot Act.

The same problem plagues any web content mining service powered by popularity. Popularity sometimes promotes quality but it is often a finder of mindlessness: extreme leftist or rightist rants, passed-out co-ed photos, embarrassing videos of people who can’t dance trying to dance and people who can’t sing trying to sing.

Every blogger knows of a half dozen services like Blogdex or Daypop that list “hot” posts in the selective ring of small publications some of us inaccurately choose to call “the blogosphere.” A post becomes hot when two people with somewhat visible blogs link to it. Once it appears in Blogdex or the Daypop Top 40, a hundred more bloggers will link to it, either because it interests them or just to signify their membership in the tribe.

Thanks to the exponential nature of such linkage, our lucky post soon has 500 links. Some people link to it without even reading or looking at it, simply because a trustworthy blogger like Kottke linked to it first. Less fortunate articles and discussions wither and die, unnoticed.

Tag clouds harness all that mindless accidental randomness and make it the driving engine for navigating deep, ever-expanding content troves. Older ways, based on library science, undoubtedly suffer from the disadvantage of not being new. But they help people find what they need. And that is what navigation should do. (Discuss.)

27 April 2005 1 pm edt

Destination moon

Huhcorp (“We do stuff™”) is the world’s most dynamic e-business marketing, design and consulting agency. They have a meeting room with a big, round, expensive table. They offer revolutionary, cross-market convergent e-savvy solutions.
Searchscapes Manhattan
I only link to Shockwave-based web presentations when they are special. This is a link to Searchscapes Manhattan. Enough said.
CandyBar 2.5
Panic and Iconfactory’s CandyBar 2.5 update supports Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. As in previous versions, this essential app lets you replace OS X’s unsightly, depressingly photorealistic icons with sexy pixels of your choosing.
Trick out your Trashcan. Decorate your Drives. Mix up Mail. CandyBar 2 lets you change the Mac OS X icons you usually can’t!
CandyBar 2.5 is a free upgrade for registered CandyBar users.
This week in The New Yorker
In Green Monster, architecture critic Paul Goldberger takes on Charles Gwathmey’s new luxury apartment building in NYC’s Astor Place, explaining how “high-gloss modernism, preferably attached to the signature of a famous architect and dropped into an old industrial streetscape, became the hottest thing in Manhattan apartment architecture since Emery Roth invented the foyer” — and why Gwathmey’s new building fails where Richard Meier’s meat district towers succeed.
Goldberger is the author of The City Observed: New York, a 1979 masterpiece that remains the best guide to Manhattan and its architecture of any ever written by anyone. He is also the author of Gwathmey Siegel Houses, and was for many years architecture critic of The New York Times.
Pix in stock 1
As new as a baby duckling, The Art Bureau is a royalty-free stock photo house for creative professionals with a difference:
This site is designed with Web standards.
During its launch-time promotion, the fledgling service is offering a “buy four, get one free” deal.
Pix in stock 2
The newly launched Photos to Go Unlimited is an extremely low-cost photo subscription service. Instead of paying per image, as you would with most royalty-free services, you subscribe to the service for six months at a cost of US $99. In turn, you get access to over 55,000 royalty-free stock photos. And quality is good. Not Veer good, of course, but plenty good enough for many small business and design project needs.

22 April 2005 4 pm edt

Fantasticus vs. the Collossalers

Remember when visiting sites was like discovering that a magical world lay hidden behind the false wall of your closet? When the very word “web” carried a whiff of the underground? And sites were strangely beautiful, all hidden corners and surprises?
Solipsistic will bring back that feeling, or introduce you to it.
There is no themeline. No About page. No profile. No blogroll. Nothing to appease your curiosity or ease your angst.
Secret, haunted, and abandoned — like a long-shuttered rag and bone shop — the site offers music, pictures, moving pictures, and diary entries that seem to have been written by Kafka’s grandfather after listening to Singles Going Steady.
Part of a family of cryptic sisters, Solipsistic is powered by Luma, standards-friendly blogging software you are apparently encouraged to use. Beautiful, deep, and archly knowing, Solipsistic will reward your time.
Parental Advisory
For your MP3 listening pleasure, ni9e.com offers only the explicit parts of Dopeman and other NWA classics:
This is the entire N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton album edited down into just the “explicit” content. ... Support the arts and enjoy curse words.
For example, Dopeman is 19 seconds of only foul language.
“Classic 6”
In The New York Public Library Digital Gallery: “Classic 6:” New York City Apartment Building Living, 1880s-1910s
More than 1,300 digital images depict elevation views and floor plans for middle and upper class apartment buildings from New York City's pre-World War I residential building boom.

21 April 2005 2 pm | 4 pm | ? edt

Linkos. The freshmaker.

“Dogs Playing Poker” sells for $590,400
Although his name is not commonly remembered today, Coolidge’s images seem permanently seared into the American public conscience. They are among our most important and endearing images of American popular culture and stand beside the icons of other illustrators such as Rockwell, Flagg and Wyeth.
Gruber deconstructs Adobemac PR spiel
Gruber takes the piss out of a PR flack’s spin and a page out of Dean Allen, past master of deconstructive jocularity.
How to Include Web Standards in an RFP
Incorporating web standards in your company’s functional specs.
Five simple steps to better typography
First of five.
Project d’art.

19 April 2005 12 noon edt

Tag clouds are the new mullets

Like mood rings and fanny packs, like mullets and the Macarena, the weighted tag clouds meme popularized by Flickr and Technorati is about to cross a permanent cultural shame threshold. Brilliant as the idea remains, faddishness is choking its air supply. Damned clouds are everywhere.

It’s not just blogs that are using weighted tag clouds. Businesses are shoveling them into interface makeovers, with predictably mixed success. Thus Lulu, a company that helps people publish their own books, CDs, and other products, offers a half-hearted tag cloud to help customers browse categories.

It is of course wrong to compare weighted tag clouds to mullets, mood rings, and similar instances of mindless pop-cultural detritus. Tag clouds are not dumb. Their smartness is why so many have rushed to use them. But ubiquity and repetition quickly turn sweets to ashes. Kopy Kats Kill Klouds?

14 April 2005 11 am edt

The big roundup

The Web: A Work in Progress
Q. How many web pages have gone live with placeholder text?
A. Loads, as Jim Heid discovers in a smart, funny piece that will embarrass more than a few web pros. (Sample.)
Reboots are Made for Walking
Each year on 1 May hundreds of sites redesign for the sake of creative refreshment and to express community solidarity. May 1st Reboot is the trigger for these transformations, and the event site is once again soliciting entries. (The fifth anniversary Reboot site’s nifty, Susan Kare-like icons are by Simona; Paul did the rest.)
I am once again among the judges, and I once again urge content-oriented, standards-based sites to join the many Flash sites competing for attention and awards. But this year I do not have to my urging alone. There are already quite standards-based entries thanks to B. Adam Howell’s evangelism. See CSS Reboot for details on how to submit your site.
Style Master CSS editor unveils educational pricing
Students, teachers and faculty members can get a 50% discount on Style Master, Westciv’s professional CSS editor “for hand coders and designers,” and an equal discount on the company’s Platinum course bundle, which teaches...
  • HTML & XHTML for CSS
  • CSS Level 1
  • CSS Level 2
  • Color & Graphics
  • The Complete CSS Guide
Westciv are not newcomers to the cause of web standards; their tools and their teaching are as good as it gets.
Lines of Desire
Desire lines are the paths people make when they cut across a grassy area instead of following the prescribed walkway.” Rather than discourage such activity, landscape architects study it, and alter their architecture accordingly. The analogy to what web designers do is obvious, but it goes deeper. Tanya Rabourn’s short, pithy blog post will keep you thinking for days.
Apple Should Hire John Gruber
I’m linking to John Gruber’s recent post, “Point, Counterpoint: Mac OS X Is Great for Fortysomething Unix Hackers,” because it is witty, incisive, well-reasoned, and fair, and because you might enjoy reading it. But I could have linked to almost anything John Gruber has written at Daring Fireball in the past couple of years to make the point indicated by this entry’s title.
A while back, Microsoft was smart enough to recognize that Robert Scoble’s chronic blogging could be used to put a human face on their huge, all-powerful software company. Scoble is the best thing to happen to Microsoft since they killed Clippy.
Gruber does not write as fast or as much as Scoble — nobody does — but what’s there is cherce. Gruber can make kernel panics sound good. Most important of all (because it underlines his credibility as an Apple spokescritic) Gruber consistently criticizes Apple’s few shortcomings, such as the inconsistencies and contradictions that still plague the OS X Finder.
Could Gruber be as effective on Apple’s payroll as he is off it? Apple should hire him and find out.
(Unofficial) Apple blog moves and redesigns
Speaking of Apple and blogs, congrats to The Unofficial Apple Weblog, which has a new URL and an improved new design. (See the old design for comparison.)
Acid 2: Putting Browser Makers on Notice
WaSP Drew McLellan’s summary of recent Web Standards Project CSS activity is too good not to quote:
Those with long memories will remember ABBA. The rest of us may just about recall the good work of the CSS Samurai when they launched the Acid Test back in 1997 and challenged makers of browsers world-over to improve their support for CSS 1. Well, dammit, we’re at it again. ... Acid2 is a brand new test designed to push the limits of HTML, CSS, and PNG support in browsers and authoring tools. ... Early feedback is coming in from the likes of Safari developer Dave Hyatt over at Apple. [Hyatt has already used Acid2 to isolate and fix two CSS bugs in Safari.]