Building Community in Tag-Based Architecture

Since I only seem to write good things while I’m procrastinating, I’m going to spend another few hours avoiding revisions I need to do.

First off: I recommend reading Mike Barthel’s recent essay at The Awl, What Are The Politics of The Internet? Though I don’t entirely agree with some of his conclusions, I think he’s explained a lot of what is otherwise invisible to many heavy Internet users, as well as hitting on a big sticking point of mine: the importance of architecture in influencing community structure and organization.

What I’ve been really fascinated by recently is the role of the tag as a community-shaper.  Early communities were much more centralized as a result of the BBS/forum structure. Moderators maintained some control over content posted and established standards of conversational interaction, etiquette, etc. In this structure, the moderator has an investment in the community because they are directly tied to a singular local culture.

However, such a centralized architecture is increasingly less common—instead, community arises around “tags.” John Paolillo’s got a good paper, Structure and Network in the YouTube Core (2008), that looks at how this happens on YouTube. But the concept doesn’t require any specialized knowledge: the clustering effect is fairly self-evident when one performs a search for limited-use terms like “FTM.” (Which I’m using as an example here simply because I’m more familiar with its specific contours.)

Tags are content magnets – they draw images, videos, and posts in their orbit and keep them suspended there. The more common a tag, the more content it will draw. Sometimes that content will come in conflict—such as the “Sherlock” tumblr tag war in March. And for tags like “FTM,” the term represents–to different people in different situations–either an indicator of content and/or an identity claim. When one is trying to break into the “community” on an ostensibly non-hierarchical site, the tag (in combination with a post’s content) serves as one’s “token” for membership. As certain token tags are repeatedly used, “convergence around conventional meanings can be expected” (Paolillo 2008; 8). I certainly found this in my work with FTM transition vlogs. There’s a visual image of “what” FTM looked like—even if the reality is much more diverse.

The “token” effect also highlights another one of tag-based architecture’s the great weakness: the limited amount of tokens practical or available. So users may use multiple tags with possibly conflicting meanings, such as “ftm” and “genderqueer,” for several reasons. They may be using the multiple tags to complicate the conventional definition or recognize their own personal ambivalence. Alternately, the user may seek to attract a broader audience. The second one, I think, is far truer on YouTube than Tumblr. However, this kind of duplicate-use can consequently allow a certain group to dominate a tag, (unintentionally) silencing the less-visible group through sheer numbers.

Lastly, there’s also the question of who has power in these situations. Tag-bases sites are also almost exclusively sites where disciplinary power (banning, restricting account access, etc.) is limited to representatives of the corporation. Community members can request these representatives act, but there’s no guarantee they’ll get the response they want—especially if the corporation and community members have different options of, in the case of say Youtube, “offensive material.” Instead, community members rely on social shaming. Thus, the rise in “call-out culture.”

I’m not going to argue whether tag architecture is “good” or “bad” for community building. But I think it’s worth thinking about the role architecture and corporate power play in shaping how members think about their communities, especially when so much thought is generated in these spaces and then transferred elsewhere.

Leave a Reply