Posted by: nickgerlich | September 16, 2007

The Order Of Things

Yesterday I said that I could tell a lot about a person by simply scanning their bookshelf or CD collections. The fact that a person reads or listens to music says a lot, but then add in genres and titles, and you have deep, revealing information about an individual.

I also think you can tell a lot about someone by looking at their computer’s file directory. Some people are very organized and have documents, images, and audio/video clips stored away in neat, tidy folders.

And then there are the people who simply save everything in the ubiquitous My Documents folder, hoping to be able to find things if they ever need them. Of course, that’s kind of like dumping all of your belongings into one massive drawer and expecting to match a blue sock to its mate without having to spend a couple of hours of futility in the process.

Humans by their very nature crave at least some order in their lives. The fact that you put books and CDs on a shelf, and socks and silverware in drawers, says something. According to David Weinberger in Everything Is Miscellaneous, this is the first order of order. Our junk is no longer on the floor; it has a home.

Everything Is MiscellaneousBut this is often not very helpful. What happens when we amass hundreds of books or CDs? Or different types of socks (athletic, dress, work)? We thus find a second order of order, the categorization of items within a broader type of product. Thus, we have a silverware drawer, along with a tray that allows us to separate the spoons from the forks and knives. We put book ends on our shelves to separate the fiction from the nonfiction, the biographies from the business texts.

Libraries understand this need for order all too well. To their initial benefit, the Dewey Decimal System provided order amid a jumble of printed matter. Melvil Dewey was in his glory in 1876 when he designated a numerical taxonomy for books, one that is still used today in libraries.

But in our quest for more and more order in a playlist culture, we are finding that, according to Weinberger, less order is what we need. Instead of rigid taxonomies that become obsolete the moment they are printed, we need scalable, searchable, and mixable databases of objects that can be arranged in countless permutations, and done so by end-users, not a central library making decisions for all of us.

And so we have the third order of order: messiness. Weinberger prescribes ever more messiness, but with the caveat that we users are allowed to “tag” things as we see fit.

An excellent example is what is going on over at, the photo storage site that allows users to create “sets” and “collections” that can be twisted and cast into an endless array of slideshows.

Imagine that you have taken about 10,000 digital photos (like I have). Suppose you load them all on the Flickr site, and put them in unique folders (e.g., Italy Trip). Further suppose you put descriptive tags on either individual photos or on a set, using such terms as “vacation,” “Italy,” “beach,” “dining,” “kids,” and “2007.”

After loading thousands of photos, now envision yourself one day wanting to view all of your pictures from throughout the years that include your kids. You could instantly put together a slideshow of just your kids, drawn from all those separate sets of photos taken on a variety of trips, and in any year.

That’s power!

Numerous websites are pushing this third order of order, such as and, where I host my public blog. At LibraryThing users can inventory all of their books, and then tag each of them. This allows easy retrieval (e.g., imagine trying to remember a Christian fiction book you read in 2006). And at WordPress, I can create and assign as many categories (tags) as I want. In the last three weeks I have had hundreds of site visitors who simply stumbled into my meanderings because they were tag-searching at WordPress, and found blogs I had written on “Business & Economy,” “Marketing,” etc.

The iTunes program that we iPod users employ to manage our songs and our playlists is but a weak third-order agent, as it is actually pretty limited in its scope. While we can create playlists, it tracks only things like Genre, Artist, and Album information. What if we could tag songs or albums with descriptors such as “Happy,” “Sad,” “Study Music,” or “Autumn?” The fact that we have to create the playlists says that we need to implicitly gather the items ourselves according to a mental third ordering; what if we could just let iTunes grab all the songs under “Happy” and then surprise us?

Maybe that’s whay I like Last.FM, because all I need do is enter an artist, and the site then creates a random playlist based on similar artists. It’s not perfect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Weinberger has challenged me like no author of late, for he has exposed the extreme limitations of a Dewey Decimal System mindset. Life, music, photos, books, etc., simply cannot be contained on a 3 X 5 inch card in a funky little filing cabinet. The linear world of Dewey and our ancestors has been replaced by nonlinearity, a sometimes scary notion that is more uncertain than it is certain, more unpredictable than it is predictable. The miscellaneous leaves on Weinberger’s tree of knowledge are connected almost randomly by invisible threads…threads that are stitched by each one of us as we add meaning to our chaotic lives, and in ways that may only make sense to us.

It’s all a bit confusing at times, but I think this is an idea whose time as come. It’s OK to dump everything in My Documents, as long as everything has its tag. As we learn to think like a pivotable database, we must let go of the one- and two-dimensionality of Dewey’s world.

And that’s an order.

Dr “Tag…You’re It!” Gerlich


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