Case Study on Strategic Tagging

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Article: "thinkflickrthink": a case study on strategic tagging. By Eugenio Tisselli



Eugenio Tisselli has produced a case study on strategic tagging:

“This research studies the reactions of the users of Flickr who, in an uncoordinated way, responded to a change in its filtering policy in Germany. In particular, it focuses on the birth and dissemination of a new anti-censorship tag created for the occasion: “thinkflickrthink”. This event presented a unique opportunity to analyze, from its origins, the semiotic dynamics of a specific word within a social network. The creation of this and other competing anti-censorship tags points towards a strategic, even subversive use of the system itself. Users swarmed Flickr with the newly created tags, aiming at making them popular and thus visible within the “tag cloud”, and also at other prominent locations throughout the site.”

Here’s a typical detail from the study:

“During the anti-censorship protests, users got together into newly-formed protest groups. In particular, the group “Against Censorship at Flickr!” experienced an impressive growth: in the first week of the anti-censorship campaign, its number of members went from 0 to almost 12.000. Besides this major group, other 11 anti-censorship groups were detected.

The users of “thinkflickrthink”, by their mere usage of the tag, can be considered as a group, albeit an emergent one, in which its “members” share the common use of a strategy. Of all the involved users, 1.115 of them (83,27%) have at least one contact within this spontaneous group. The number reflects the total users who “know” or “are known by” another user, regardless of reciprocity. Contacts in Flickr are unidirectional: user A is in user B’s list, but this doesn’t imply that B is in A’s. The fact that the majority of users are interconnected suggests that the new tag may have spread mainly through contact with “close neighbors”, although the anti-censorship groups played an important role as well.”

The conclusion of the study is as follows:

“A tag can be created and disseminated for strategic purposes. Thus, the classification of tags proposed by Golder and Huberman [2] has to be extended to include this usage, which can be characterized as being metalinguistic. Zollers has identified what she calls “Activism” in the use of tagging [8], however, the term “strategic” is preferred here, since it presents broader connotations. A strategy is a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. By striving for visibility, strategic taggers went beyond mere description, annotation or even expression, and tried to subvert the system by exploiting its own features. They tried to expand the limits of the linguistic context of tagging, in order to be able to speak loudly and directly to those who run the website.

The analysis of the data shows that protestors most likely disseminated the use of strategic tagging among their contacts, rather than within a particular specific-interest group. A list of contacts is much closer to a hand-picked ensemble of friends than one of such groups, and therefore represents a bigger influence for the list’s owner. The categorizations of users proposed can be practical tools to be applied in other similar cases, and used to analyze the different patterns of activity of subgroups that spontaneously emerge from networks. The fact that most of the collective protest tagging was done by a minority of protestors reflects a phenomenon that should be acknowledged when dealing with communities: the actions of a few can outweigh those of the many. Collectivity, in this case, doesn’t necessarily stand for proportionality, at least in quantitative terms.

The study of the dynamics of uncoordinated semantic strategies within dense on-line communities is of enormous importance to gain a greater understanding of how social and linguistic interaction takes place in a technological environment, and how it can augment the users’ potential for direct action.” (