Individual Differences and the trouble with the Standard Social Science Model

I have just realized that in my thoughts about all this tagging, I have really been focusing on the historical and other forms of aggregate data, and not really been worried about individual users. This is really in contrast to the analyses carried out by the die hard tags vs. categories types. A prototypical example of this is again Clay Shirky’s (classic?) post. Here are the titles of his figures illustrating del.icio.us: “Tags per user”, “A single user’s tags”, “Different tag ‘signatures’ for different URLs”. O.K., so he only has three graphs. But a full 66% of them refer to single users.
This reflects differences in bias …. no, not really bias …. but attitudes toward the appropriate level of description at which phenomena are best understood. I remember the moment my attitude suddenly made sense to me, when I came across the brilliant book containing an introductory chapter by the psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (the last of whom I met at a lunch once, to my great pleasure. Leda is a brilliant and really nice lady). In presenting their Adaptationist view of cognition, they argue that the traditionally popular Standard Social Science Model in which human minds are presented as “blank slates” to be written on by experience and culture, is simply wrong. If I remember correctly (this is reaching back a few years!) they illustrate their argument with the failures of Anthropolgical research in much of the 20th century. The problem is that researchers were so keen on identifying the vast power of cultural differences on shaping human behavior, they over focused on finding those differences at the expense of ignoring the similarities. So in one culture men marry one woman, in others they marry 100. There is clearly a difference here, but is that difference more important than the striking similarity that both cultures have some concept of “marriage”? The truly important observation made by Tooby and Cosmides is that there is an absolutely remarkable series of commonalities between ALL cultures on the face of the planet; similarities to do with affiliation, punishment, and so on. How can this be? It is the “aggregated” similarities rather than the specific differences that pose the really interesting puzzles.
This observation is in many ways similar to the works of the great linguist Noam Chomsky, who changed the face of linguistics when he postulated that the really important part of understanding language is to understand the nature of the mental faculties that must exist in order to learn and to use human language in the way that humans do. The study of these faculties has shown that the knowledge of language in speakers of all human languages probably overlaps a great deal, and that the apparently vast differences between languages are due to relatively unimportant factors like parametric variations and different vocabularies. I am being somewhat cavalier in this, I know, but let me illustrate the basic point with my previous linguistic example: it is true that different individual English speakers might chose to say either “Who do you want to go with” or “Who do you wanna go with”. We could of course have all sorts of theories about the sorts of people would want to say one or the other. Or we could say “look .. I really (really) couldn’t care less about why you would chose to say one or the other”. What is really interesting is that both speakers will admit (unless they have some sort of non-linguistic psychological problems!) that either way of saying it is fine. Furthermore, they will also both agree that “Who do you want to help you” is good, but the superficially similar variation “Who do you wanna help you” is not good. All of the sudden questions about the superficial choice of different surface forms is superseded by a much deeper question about the nature of (shared) knowledge that allows the expressions in the first place. Of course the differences between languages is less trivial, and we can learn a great deal about language by the ways in which different languages can differ. But again it is the generalizations and categorizations of the kinds of possible differences that is important.
So maybe the point about all this to tags is obvious? Well, for what its worth … I have a feeling that the aggregate information is telling us something interesting about the way people (in general) use tags, that will subsequently also help us understand why a person (individually) chooses to use them in their own unique (to a point?) way.
So in a way this is just an attitude (bias?) that I have. But the wonderful thing about science is that our respective biases are eventually tested and weeded out. Does one level of analysis give us deeper understanding than the other? Which one has more predictive power, in the sense that we can uncover more new facts and explain more old ones?? In some cases like linguistics the answer is fairly clear, in psychology less so, and with respect to tags … we have a long way to go.
But I am optimistic about my attitude. Here is a prediction I can make. In an earlier post I suggested an experiment in which an evil millionaire who wants the whole world of computers to bend to his will (hmm .. sounds familiar!), pays a lot of people to insert his favorite tags into popular web bookmarks. So he pays people to insert tags like really_super_cool, must_have_for_my_birthday, blue, and so on. What would happen? My feeling is that, once he stopped paying, the popularity of these tags would quickly drop off. How could we explain that if it were true? Again my feeling is that every possible explanation would eventually boil down to the claim that people just don’t like tags like that to describe resources, in the same way that they like tags like news. Why not? Well, we are back to the linguistics-style argument again.
I have other predictions of course, which Joshua could easily confirm or dis confirm. I bet people mostly click on the big words in tag clouds. But I am not too deeply committed to this feeling. On the other hand I bet more that when people search with combinations of tags, they tend to use relatively few and high frequency tags. And I bet the aggregate data would show this!

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