June 2006 Archives

Emergent Navigation

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

Amanda asked me a question the other day that got me thinking. "What is the name for navigation systems that emerge from tags?"

Hrm. Good question. "Folksonomy" is the term being used for an uncontrolled vocabulary that is made by lumping together different people's tags. But I don't know that I've heard of an emergent navigation system based solely on tags.

The more I started thinking about navigation based on tags, the more the information architect in me started to worry. The problem with free-form tagging is that there is no relationship between the terms, except colocation, and frequency of use/appearance. There are limited applications (that I can think of) where a navigational structure based on colocation and frequency would be the optimal method to use (news may be one, where the "top news" items are highlighted in a persistent nav sort of treatment, but would change as the news changes). The risk of the system becoming a self-fulfilled feedback loop is large; a small number of tags bubble to the top and then stay at the top because everyone keeps clicking on them. The Technorati's top 100 list is like that in many ways.

Amanda pointed out that on Flickr and You Tube the navigation is aggregated "stuff": Most Popular, Yours, Your Contacts, etc. I would argue that the navigation still isn't driven by tags in these cases. What the sites have done is to create spaces where the content within the space is organized by tags, but those spaces are consistent, ever-present and not tag driven. "My Contacts" is not a tag. The content that appears within "My Contacts" is tag driven - it's the photo stream of people I've tagged as friends. But "My Contacts" doesn't change to "vacation" just because "vacation" is the most popular tag at the moment.

The idea that the global navigation of a site changes and flexes based upon the ebb and flow of tags used on the site screams out against the ideals of consistent, clear global navigation that I've believed for years. But after the knee-jerk reaction has passed, I wonder if there is an appropriate use for such a system. I'm just not sure.

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