A comment to The Scientific Indian suggested –

Soon the internet might go the ants way, I believe.. mobile routers, network devices exhibiting group intelligence… automatic social bookmarking bots… the unifying thread is the unsophisticated nature of ants themselves.

Unsophisticated nature of the ants themselves
– how better could we describe ourselves as we go about bookmarking and
tagging items of interest on the web which we know little about? The
same post points to a New Scientist article which suggests that Big Brains are not crucial to teaching and gives the example of… yes, ants –

differs from simply broadcasting information in that the teacher must
modify their behaviour, at some cost, to assist a naïve observer
to learn more quickly…. follower ants would indeed find food faster
when tandem running than when simply searching for it alone, but at the
cost to the teacher who would normally reach the food about four times
faster if foraging alone.

That’s fascinating in that
it explains to me why we take the time to (socially) bookmark. I’ve
often wondered why I spend so much more time tagging and annotating my
del.icio.us bookmarks than I can rationally explain. At a subsconcious
level I seem to have bought into a contract that the time I donate as
an individual will somehow reward the community, or the collective. And
I do modify my behaviour in the sense that I try to use tag words which
I think will make the most sense across demographic boundaries.

Jon Udell produced a screencast when taking a look at language evolution in del.icio.us. Its worth watching to the very end where he sums up –

In his book – The Language Instinct
– Steven Pinker talks abut how you get from a pidgin to a creole. A
pidgin is what you get when you throw people together who have no
common language and gramatically its kind of a mess. But the children
of pidgin speakers spontaneously create creole languages and those are
gramatically complete. All you need to make it work is an environment
in which people can easily speak to each other, hear one another and
adjust what they say according to what they hear. The social tagging
services just get out of the way and try to let those conversations
happen. Is this how we wind up creating the Semantic Web? I’m guessing that it is.

That Sem word fired off a neuron in my singular brain and sent me searching for my paperback copy of Steven Johnson‘s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. And here it is on page 75 –

The great bulk of ant information-processing relies on compounds of pheromones, also known as semiochemicals
for the way they create a functional sign system among the ants….
These chemical symbols turn out to be the key to understanding swarm
logic… pheromones play the central role in the organization of

Critical mass is crucially important though as Science Frontiers online points out –

a hundred army ants on a flat surface and they will walk around in
never decreasing circles until they die from exhaustion. But a colony
of a million army ants is a sophisticated “super-organism.”

It seems that intelligence, natural or artificial, is an emergent property of collective communication.
Human con-sciousness itself may be an epiphenomenon of extraordinary
processing power. Although experts prefer to avoid simplistic
definitions of intelligence, it seems clear that all intelligence
involves the rational manipulation of symbolic information. This is
exactly what happens when army ants pass information from individual to
individual through the ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ of symbols, often in the
form of chemical messengers or trail pheromones, which act as stimuli for changing behavior patterns.

this in mind I decided to test what intelligence might be evident in
the del.icio.us social bookmarking service. Del.icio.us already has a
rudimentary tag weighting algorithm which I would like to see them
using to generate self-organizing OPML hierarchies but for the purposes
of this experiment I decided to generate my own. So I visited the del.icio.us popular
page, which displays recent highly tagged items. I scanned down to find
an item which wasn’t in any way familiar to me and didn’t have a
descriptive title.

The first one I came across was ImageWell. I’d never heard of it but apparently 97 people had tagged it so I clicked through on the link to the URL page. Now, listed on the right hand side of that page are the Common Tags assigned by the 97 taggers. Here they are  –

57 software
52 mac
46 osx
32 graphics
21 tools
21 photos
19 free
16 apple
10 freeware
8 image
7 photo
6 tool
5 design
5 editor
4 apps
4 web
4 application
3 macintosh
2 imaging
2 editing
2 photograph

number apparently indicates the number of times each tag has been
applied to the item, listed in order from most frequent at the top to
least frequent at the bottom.

So I wanted to manually generate an OPML hierarchy. The rules I decided on were –

  • You must go from top (general/broad) to bottom (specific)
  • You can skip any tag
  • You can combine tags in the order from top to bottom

Which lead me to generate this hierarchy

Mac OSX >  Freeware > Image/photo/design editor

hierarchical respresentation is language independent so you could at
this stage replace the English words above with, let’s say, their
Spanish equivalents and proceed just as easily to the next step, which
is to interpret the hierarchy in term of the rules of grammar. Of
course English grammar tends to work backwards from the specific to the
general so starting on the right hand side and working to the left the
hierarchy tells me that ImageWell is: photo editing/design freeware for Mac OSX. So I click through on the item link to the IMageWell page and sure enough the first paragraph on their homepage says – “ImageWell, the free and lean image editor…”. And it is, naturally, for OSX

At this stage you’re pointing out how convenient it was for me to
pick and choose the tags I did to arrive at my definition of ImageWell.
But my contention is that as social bookmarking services like
del.icio.us improve the critical mass, feedback loop and visualization
features will indeed allow us to arrive at such tight definitions.

Let’s try another. The next Popular item which meant absolutely nothing to me was Doane Paper. 109 other people had tagged it (25 recently) so I clicked through on its URL information page. And the Common Tags were –

66 paper
35 design
15 business
12 creativity
9 diy
9 graph
8 pdf
8 grid
7 tools
7 useful
6 notes
5 legal
5 moleskine
5 journal
5 productivity
5 writing
3 blog
2 download
2 gtd
2 notetaking
2 templates
2 cool

time I decided to skip the hierarchy and just see what sense I could
make of it by starting at the bottom and working upwards. Remember a
hierarchy starts at the top and works down because it needs to go from
broad/general to specific. The English language on the other hand tends
to go from specific to general (eg. jolly fat man, dull red car). So
here was my first effort –

cool download [for] writing journal(s) [on] moleskine [in] grid [or] graph [format] [for] creativity [in] business design

I’ve added the words and letters in brackets to signify how the pidgin generated by the first generation of social bookmarking services might evolve into a gramattically complete creole with second generation services.

So, I then clicked through on the link for Doane Paper,
and wow! The definition was almost exactly as predicted by the army of
tagging ants. The pheromones secreted by the taggers had left behind a
hierarchical trail to the definition. The semiochemicals have generated
a miniature semantic web.

No one has explicity posted to del.icio.us the specific definition
for Doane Paper in the sentence above but the army of tagging ants have
generated it with their collective intelligence.

So where do the next generation of Social Bookmarking services need to go to truly realize this potential?

  1. Critical mass. The above examples, although
    pleasingly useful for demonstration purposes suffer by the small number
    of taggers. Imagine how the accuracy could benefit from thousands of
    taggers instead of hundreds.
  2. Feedback Loops. Del.icio.us currently provides a crude form of
    feedback when tagging by popping up popular terms but this needs to
    become much more sophisticated.
  3. Visualisations. One type of feeback loop we need is the
    presentation of previously used tags organized in a hierarchy. That
    would allow us to quickly zoom in on the best choice of tag much more
    accurately than the current crude weighting system. Much more about
    this later….

In conclusion, for the moment, I’d just like to repeat Jon Udell‘s wonderful insight –

you need to make it work is an environment in which people can easily
speak to each other, hear one another and adjust what they say
according to what they hear. The social tagging services just get out
of the way and try to let those conversations happen. Is this how we wind up creating the Semantic Web? I’m guessing that it is.