Hierarchy? We don’t need no steenkin hierarchy!

Really, if you’re not reading Ryan King on a regular basis, you’re missing a lot of good thinking. In this post, he points to work from Clay Shirky (a true visonary and excellent essayist).

Clay’s essay is about hierarchical organization versus user-defined relationships. This is one of the differences between Yahoo (who did a “big up front design” on their catalog to tell you where things go so that the stack “makes sense”) and Google (who don’t organize at all, they let you sift instantly through the stack). I quote:

Browse versus search is a radical increase in the trust we put in link infrastructure, and in the degree of power derived from that link structure. Browse says the people making the ontology, the people doing the categorization, have the responsibility to organize the world in advance. Given this requirement, the views of the catalogers necessarily override the user’s needs and the user’s view of the world. If you want something that hasn’t been categorized in the way you think about it, you’re out of luck.

The search paradigm says the reverse. It says nobody gets to tell you in advance what it is you need. Search says that, at the moment that you are looking for it, we will do our best to service it based on this link structure, because we believe we can build a world where we don’t need the hierarchy to coexist with the link structure.

A lot of the conversation that’s going on now about categorization starts at a second step — “Since categorization is a good way to organize the world, we should…” But the first step is to ask the critical question: Is categorization a good idea? We can see, from the Yahoo versus Google example, that there are a number of cases where you get significant value out of not categorizing. Even Google adopted DMOZ, the open source version of the Yahoo directory, and later they downgraded its presence on the site, because almost no one was using it. When people were offered search and categorization side-by-side, fewer and fewer people were using categorization to find things.

Read the whole thing.

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