The Evolution of Searchability

The piece “Survival of the Fittest Tag: Folksonomies, Findability, and the Evolution of Information Organization” discussed how searchability evolved alongside the internet. Initially, one entity dictated search terms within a database. According to author Alexis Wichowski, this all changed with the birth of folksonomies, or user generated classifications of data. Wichowski cited the site as the originator of an editable, Web 2.0 style tagging system in 2003. Wichowski presented multiple arguments for and against the use of folksonomies. Some scholars argued that this system of tagging allowed for a broader range of connective networks. It certainly fit with contemporary user’s desires to customize the internet. However, within this system there lies the propensity for redundancies. Multiple users may tag their own content with the same words. Conversely, some users may search for the same content using regional colloquialisms of the same word. Wichowski proffered the example of an item being tagged “mom,” and therefore not being searchable through the terms “mother,” “mum,” or “ma.” However, at the time of the article there was not an enormous amount of scholarship on the benefits and pitfalls of user generated search criteria. Wichowski was therefore unable to predict the fate of folksonomic categorization, but concluded that search methods would last as long as their usability endured. This argument portrayed the user generated changes to the internet as a form of evolution.


Other writings also demonstrated this point. In the piece “Once the Most Powerful Person in Search, Srinija Srinivasan Leaves Yahoo” by Danny Sullivan briefly recorded the career of Srinija Srinivasan and her role at Yahoo. According to Sullivan, Srinivasan’s work cataloguing the internet once made Yahoo the most successful search engine. The secret to this was people. Srinivasan created the structure used by human editors to catalogue digital content. This meant that users had access to material in an order dictated by human editors, with the best, most relevant results at the top. The system worked well in the early days of the internet, but eventually proved too slow to last in the fast paced digital ecosystem described by Wichowski. Eventually sites like Google developed algorithms which allowed search terms to be applied to an entire text rather than just the title. This meant that searches were no longer limited to the categories created by Srinivasan and her team. Ultimately, in this bout of evolution, the robots won.
However, there are other sites which allow for Srinivasan’s human dictated organizational structure on a smaller scale. The popular site Omeka allows users to generate databases for collections of digital representations of real world objects. This system necessitates human organization and cataloguing. It also allows for the system of tagging described by Wichowski. Each creator also tags their items in order to increase searchability. Though it may seem that human cataloguing systems went virtually extinct, it seems that they too have simply evolved into their most usable form. Rather than using these systems to catalogue the entire internet, individuals of various institutions use Omeka and similar programs as platforms with which to catalogue physical objects in the digital realm.


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