A hot topic often discussed in library school circles is digitization and the immense possibilities for increased access that it presents. Once online, even the most obscure cultural artifacts have the potential to be shared, cited, recommended, remixed, and mashed-up in previously inconceivable ways. In this age of hyperconnectivity, there is perhaps no better example of this than the growing use of social tagging as a means to classify online collections.
Allowing users to contribute metadata (i.e., tags) is less labor-intensive and directly tied to users’ own vocabulary, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Because tags are in the language of the users, issues with synonyms, plurals (e.g., cat and cats), and specificity of tags are quite common. Additional concerns involve relying too heavily on user contributions and the accuracy of each tag. Many information professionals and institutions have been experimenting with ways to combat these problems, and one solution that has been gaining popularity over the last few years is the use of games.
One of the institutions leading the way in the development of these “metadata games” is New York’s own Brooklyn Museum, which has created two games. The first, Tag! You’re it!, displays images from one of their many digitized collections along with a brief description of the item. Users are then prompted to enter as many, or as few, tags as they see fit for each image, earning points for each tag entered. The Museum’s other game, Freeze Tag!, is focused primarily on “cleaning up” existing inaccurate tags on images in their online collections. Once again, users are presented with an image along with a brief description; however, instead of creating new tags, users are asked to evaluate all existing tags for each image, and they again receive points for every tag rated.
Currently, the metadata games gaining the most notoriety are coming out of the Tiltfactor Laboratory directed by Mary Flanagan, professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College. Thanks to an NEH start-up grant and a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, Tiltfactor has teamed up with Dartmouth’s Rauner Library to create AlumTag. Similar to Tag! You’re it!, AlumTag displays photographs donated by Dartmouth Alumni and prompts users to enter as many, or as few, words associated with the image as they see fit. After four turns, users receive a score based on the number of tags generated, and also receive bonus points for tags that match what other users have contributed. Tiltfactor is also working on other metadata games such as Zen Tag, which is similar to AlumTag, and Guess What?, a two-player game where one user is presented with an array of images to choose from based on clues sent by an anonymous networked partner.
Although most metadata games are still in their experimental phases, the results show enormous potential for their use as tools in the future. According to Flanagan, during the pilot phase of AlumTag, players generated about 32 or 33 tags per image, over 90 percent of which were considered useful. While metadata games can never fully replace the role of information professionals in cataloging online collections, they definitely have enormous potential for use in conjunction with existing classification systems to allow for increased input and access like never before.
UPDATE: I just found out that Mary Flanagan is going to be delivering the opening keynote speech THIS THURSDAY at the CUNY Graduate Center’s “Minding the Body” Conference, which is part of their Digital Initiatives Program. Check it out!