Week 8: Tagging the Ivory Tower

If you visit the online gaming store Steam, you can locate a “most searched” option. This will show you the top-searched tags by people seeking new video games to play. One of the oft-cited complaints in the Steam community, by developers and consumers, is that the tagging system is not curated by Steam itself. A user can create their own tag, and, barring any slur, it will be linked to a game. Some of these can be, and are, negative in connotation. This is how a game like Dear Esther can be tagged as both “story-driven” and the more derivative “walking simulator.” Other tags might include “pointless,” “bad”, and, for a brief period of time, “gay.”

And they say gamers are not juvenile.

However, it is because the user-created tagging system exists on Steam that many independent games, such as Gone Home and Undertale, were able to avoid the pitfalls of infinite possibilities and become massive hits. An algorithm would never picked them up for featuring on the main page.

A similar dichotomy exists in the tagging and categorization of films. Netflix has a select number of taggers who are paid to watch movies and apply certain taxonomies onto them. This is how we get “comedies with a strong female lead.” But to get to “comedies with a strong femaile lead” you either have to a) be lucky and have it featured on your Netflix main page, or b) enter a rabbit hole of search options. Either way, you are still at the whim of algorithms deciding what to show you.

These hems and haws made Danny Sullivan’s article such an interesting read. Beyond the fact that a website exists solely for search engine news (NEW GOOGLE DOODLE SHOCKS THE WORLD), but also for the evolution of online databases from a human-led effort to a series of series of codes. On one hand, human hands separate the wheat from the chaff; but on the other, you can only sort so much wheat in a day. Google can clear all the fields, but the handiwork is messy. Which leaves the door open for smaller farmers to clean up. Wichowski discusses this in “Survival.” Using natural language allows for easier searchability, but once again, that human factor can rear its ugly head.

Historical databases are a tricky thing. I believe that allowing a larger group of people to be involved in the search process would be useful. It would get more people involved in historical work (always a perk) and it would make searches more practical. But I am also a cynical man, and know how the minds of many work. I do not want the Library of Congress to end up like Steam. I felt similarly about last week’s readings; more curation is wonderful as long as it follows certain guidelines and does not stray into mob tagging. I think this is the real question we have to grasp as digital history evolves:

How much control are we willing to give to those we might not have 100 percent trust in?

Jacob Dent


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