Organizing Hard So Information Is Why?

How come information is so hard to organize? For admirable answers to this perennial question, see Val Swisher’s and Mark Baker’s recent posts:

Val ends this last post with a request for analogies to replace “information as clothing.” I responded with a comment on her post. Since my blog is about powerful writing, and since writing must be organized to be powerful, I’m sharing an expanded version of my response:

Val’s and Mark’s posts take me back to that Saturday Night Live skit in which the Anal-Retentive Chef spends the whole show regrouping his ingredients—by color, by size, by food group. This guy who lives to be organized can’t get organized. To his never-ending chagrin, he can’t put the same apple in multiple groups—say, a red group and a fruit group—simultaneously. This skit’s hilarity relies on a simple fact: groupings in the physical world are mutually exclusive.

chef

The same mutual exclusivity applies to Val’s information-space-as-closet analogy: a shirt can’t hang in multiple sections at once—red clothes and party clothes, say. This is the limitation of categories (closet sections), as any blogger will tell you.

closet

To break through this limitation, an analogy needs more dimensionality, more flexibility. How about this: information as stars. In outer space, as Mark might say, Every Star Is Star One. (Mark’s blog name, and philosophy on web-based content, is “Every Page Is Page One.”) You can connect and reconnect the stars in an infinite number of groupings—let’s call them constellations—depending on which connections you want to highlight. Go ahead, make up your own constellation. Name it. Why not? Any star can belong to any number of constellations; groupings are not mutually exclusive.

constellations

Of course, this analogy (information-as-infinitely-reconfigurable-constellations) breaks down, as analogies will, in that it accounts for only one type of grouping: spacial relationship. Scientists might also want to group stars according to other properties: weight, size, color, etc. You can’t draw lines in space to reveal those kinds of “constellations.”

We’re talking deep, multidimensional dataspace. Organization: the final frontier.

In the blogosphere—so much for my analogy’s originality—tags give writers a dimensional breakthrough in terms of grouping ability. By tags, I mean metadata tags, those little words and phrases that make up tag clouds. I mean those little words that webmasters and bloggers can make up and then apply, judiciously or with abandon, to any given page or post.

  • Tags could enable a star to belong to not just an infinite number of groups but also to an infinite number of types of groups.
  • Tags could enable a shirt to hang, virtually at least, in more than one closet section.
  • Tags could have put the Chef (to our loss) out of his misery.

But tags don’t create organization. Tags (aka “labels” or “facets”) are just tools. Organization comes from the brain. Every Thought Is Thought One.

What’s the best way to string thoughts together? Ah … now we come to it. Answering this question takes something like magic. First, you must answer the questions “for whom” and “to what purpose”—questions that stymie even the most brilliant writers. Then you must deliver.

That’s why organizing hard … information is why … You know.

16 thoughts on “Organizing Hard So Information Is Why?

  1. I’m liking this! DeepDataSpace. Constellations. Multi-dimensional relationships. No wonder this stuff ain’t easy! Thanks for this follow-up post. Now, I’ll have to write a follow-up to Mark’s follow-up to my follow-up to your follow-up. Hey Word UP! :-)

  2. Oy, it IS complicated! So many combinations are available that can make my head spin, let alone anyone else’s. But in the grander scheme of things, while content could be organized in a number of different ways that make sense, I would think the key is what would make the MOST sense, namely, organize within the best context of how the content is being used. For example, to take your stellar analogy (a little play on word there), would it be best to organize the stars by constellation or by galaxy? It depends on the context of how they will be referred. If we are at a planetarium, then perhaps the constellation groupings would be more prudent than where each of star is located in a given galaxy. Looking at the closet analogy again, while one could group all the clothes by color, does that help one coordinate all possible outfit combinations? Not necessarily. Context of how the content is delivered seems to be a vital key to how all this goes down.

  3. Pingback: Organizing Hard So Information Is Why? | techcommgeekmom

  4. Brilliantly written. I especially liked the final frontier reference.
    Now why can’t the same sub-category go under two separate main categories? Red Shirt sub-category under Red Clothes AND under Party Clothes. If you only have 20 categories, then wouldn’t that be okay? If you have 300 categories, I can see that would be a problem. So much redundant and costly information. In place of all the redundant references, then you would say, “see Red Clothes.” Glossaries do that all the time. I’m sure my lack of knowledge is showing. These are the thoughts that come to mind when I read this blog.

    • Thanks, Mark. Ah, glossaries. Indexes, too, for that matter. Talk about final frontiers! Few people appreciate the multidimensional complexity of a good index. That topic will have to wait for another day. :-)

  5. I love the way you write. I guess our culture has long passed the KISS system where we could Keep It Simple. Danielle has a good point — when I’m organizing a room, I know this drawer (or shelf or section of closet) could function in a multitude of ways, but the salient question is, “How do I want this drawer (or shelf or section of closet) to function for me?” But if I am organizing information for the public who will be using it in a multitude of ways, I no longer have the privilege of doing it to suit myself. Daniel Webster had it easy — just organize alphabetically. Not so simple today.

  6. Great post, Marcia. I think you nailed it with this sentence: ‘First, you must answer the questions “for whom” and “to what purpose”.’ If we always keep content users’ goals and needs in mind, that makes a seemingly impossible problem at least approachable. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means — it’s hard enough just determining who our users are and what they need to get them where they need to be. But at least it narrows down the possibilities from all the ways you could classify your content, to the ways that it could make sense to classify your content. Hope this doesn’t sound too glib. I certainly know what it’s like to deal with these issues on a day to day basis (though in the context of a CMS that’s quite happy for us to classify things in multiple ways ;-) ).

  7. Naturally I was going to bring up the user and how tags help usability. Joe said it very well. Understanding our users can help take some of the overwhelming-ness out of tagging. But still such a myriad of possibilities. Thanks for this analogy Marcia. It’s a beautiful way to look at metadata! We really have to be Deanna Troy, the empath from Star Trek, to really get it right for our users–don’t we?

    • Deanna Troy! Love it. Empath, right on. My book index includes this entry:

      empathy for readers, 108-9, 120-21, 146, 153-55, 157-160

      (Check out all three of my indexes and previews of many of the chapters under my “Excerpts” tab.)

      Thanks for commenting, Danalyn.

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