Three Stars and a Chili Pepper: Social Software, Folksonomy, and User Reviews in the College Context

by Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College–CUNY


The “future history of the media,” EPIC, presents a fictionalized retrospective, from the year 2014, of the history of media, news, and information. “In the year 2014,” the “Museum of Media History” tells us, “people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape.” While we have not reached the point predicted there, and only time will tell if we’re going to be there by 2014, there have, of late, been some significant steps in that direction. One of these steps has been the development of a constellation of online tools that can be (at least loosely) tied together in the broad category of social software.

Social software includes many communication media, but the new tools which are the subject of this essay all fit three broad descriptions. These tools are interactive, with the content created and structured by a wide mass of contributors. These tools are also interconnected, with user-provided searchable links structuring and cross-referencing that content. And finally, these tools are bottom-up and communitarian, with the users of the tools providing and benefitting from associations, reputations, and authority within a many-to-many community. The various tools of social software are an increasing presence in the online world, as well as the offline lives of their users. Four brief vignettes demonstrate this.

Four Vignettes

In Boca Raton, Florida, baby Andrew is very sick. He and his twin sister Carly, born prematurely, came home from the hospital and seemed to be doing fine, when suddenly Andrew’s hemoglobin levels started dropping rapidly. In the emergency room, doctors prepared to give Andrew a potentially risky, but seemingly necessary, emergency blood transfusion. Andrew’s father, concerned, acted quickly. With only a small amount of battery power on his cell phone, he punched in a quick Google search (he used the search terms: hemoglobin and “premature infant“) on the phone’s integrated web browser, and found an article from the American Academy of Family Physicians Journal which described Andrew’s situation exactly. Showing the link to the doctors, the worried dad got a most surprising response. The doctors quickly headed for their offices and their own computers, to do their own searching, and returned to (sheepishly) admit that this was research with which they were not familiar. And that Andrew did not need the transfusion at all.

In Vatican City, the Pope is dead. The cardinals have assembled to choose a new Pope, and the world anxiously awaits their decision. Finally the moment comes. The smoke is visible from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Within minutes, wikipedia, the online open-source encyclopedia, has an updated article on the new Pope, with a photograph, a brief biography, and an analysis of his theology and ideology. Minutes later the article changes subtly as users add information, links to other sources, and links to other wikipedia articles. And minutes after that, it changes again, but much less subtly. The photograph has changed to a new one—that of the evil Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars movies. But within, literally, one minute, the photo is changed back to the accurate one (which is still there now), and the vandal who placed the Palpatine photo has been banned from wikipedia.

In Brooklyn, New York, a professor of art history, looking for images of sculptures and Renaissance architecture, goes to flickr, the online photo sharing service. In searching for images, she finds many of the same ones that are in art history textbooks—but with a difference. These are the images taken by people in their visits to the sites. They include awkward angles, blurry passersby, bored children, or posing vacationers, and they give the sense of scale and viewer involvement that textbook images, perfectly framed and lighted, standing in isolation on a glossy page with a caption, cannot. The professor looks at the tags which are connected to these pictures, searches for and finds more, and adds tags of her own, forming a new set of photos, a slideshow of images which are related to each other not just by content, but also by perspective and experiential context.

In Massachusetts, at a major research university, a young part-time teacher gets a phone call from her department chair. He wants her to take a look at the student evaluations of her class, which students have posted using an online system, and which she can view online. She calls up the site, enters her username and password, and starts to read. Before she has even scrolled halfway down the page, she is nearly in tears. Several students’ comments, rather than focusing on her pedagogy or communication of content, directly address her appearance, and personality, with explicit comments about her body, her style of dress, even her hygiene. Her department chair doesn’t hold it against her, or even see it, but it is in her mind every time she walks into the classroom. She does not return after the next semester.

The New Tools

These four vignettes, all of which are true, share a common theme—good or bad, they all grow out of the recent and revolutionary change in the structure of knowledge, information, research and criticism which has been enabled by the internet. The arena of online interaction and communication which the internet provides–the ability to rapidly publish, categorize, and distribute information and opinion–has allowed the growth of tools which put users, people, in control of the distribution and content of information in ways that are decentralized and non-hierarchical.

Let me describe and explain in more detail the new tools (some of which are not really so new at all, as we will see) from the four vignettes above, and then I will return to those vignettes to suggest some possible uses of these tools in the academic setting—to exploit their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

Google is a search engine, of course, one of many since the earliest days of the Internet, but since its invention in 1996, Google has rapidly become the dominant, in fact the default, search engine. There are many reasons for this, but three in particular are relevant to this essay. First, Google provides an unparalleled scope of comprehensive coverage. The entire internet, from my daughter’s gallery of photos of her cute kitten to the homepages of the United Nations, the White House, and Exxon, are crawled and cataloged and kept on Google’s immense servers in Mountain View, California (a mundane location, although in my imagination, those servers always look more like they should be found in the Emerald City).

In addition, the index Google provides, the ranking and relevance of search results, is completely machine-produced, and machine edited. No person or group of people decides how to reference or cross-reference the items; this done by an algorithm. And that algorithm (while its exact nature is a closely held proprietary secret within the walls of the Emerald City…or Google’s campus) is the third feature of Google which makes it unique, and which places it within the realm of social software—socially constructed information and knowledge. Google’s algorithm ranks sites by how many other sites are linking to them (with more complex variables such as the ranking of the sites doing the linking)—so that it is users, in a diffuse, enucleated cooperation, who make the decisions about which results are relevant and important.

It may seem that this kind of ranking will inevitably lead to a kind of tyranny of the popular, where sites that are most important, or most reliable, are displaced by sites which provide a kind of lowest denominator of common knowledge. And that does sometimes happen. But almost mysteriously, an opposite result is far more common. The site which is most appropriate, and most valuable, frequently turns up near the top of the list of the results, so that even a worried father, with the tiny screen of a cell phone and dying battery, can find, in a matter of minutes, the exact medical journal article which the emergency room doctors have not even seen.

When the web was first “invented” in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, he wanted his system to work at CERN for collaboration, where he could put up content (research results, ideas for new projects, general announcements) for others to read and see, and modify, add to, or correct. Of course, the web itself quickly moved away from this vision and became a more locked-down environment, with mostly static pages, and a one-way relationship between creator and consumer.

But the new tool known as a wiki is a direct successor to Berners-Lee’s conception. A wiki (“wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick” or “fast”) is a website where pages can be quickly and easily created and edited by users. Users do not need to know HTML, or programming, or anything other than (at most) a very simple markup language for formatting. Wikipedia (which we saw in the vignette above) is an attempt (of long standing now, with close to a million articles and over half a million registered users—and far more casual, unregistered users, since no one is required to register) to create an encyclopedia based on the concept of a wiki.

Pages can be created, edited, modified (even vandalized—as in the case of Pope Palpatine) by any and everyone. There are differences, of course, from the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from any other “traditional” encyclopedia. Sometimes these differences are negative (the openness to editing also allows an openness to vandalism) but other times they are uniquely positive. As in the case of Google, wikipedia can provide the quickest, most relevant, and often, surprisingly, most accurate results—because the terms of the search and even the content of the results of the search, are determined without centralization or imposed artificial perspectives, without a hierarchy, by users themselves. It is negotiated, shared, open knowledge. In wikipedia, the links and references between and among articles are provided by users, incrementally, with relevancies added as they are noticed, or as they emerge.

This process has recently encountered a much-publicized challenge at wikipedia, seemingly even more serious than that posed by the vandalism of Pope Benedict’s entry described above. John Seigenthaler Sr., a retired journalist, found that the wikipedia entry referring to him contained a false, and insidious, piece of misinformation linking him to the Kennedy assassinations. Mr. Seigenthaler’s response, unfortunately, was completely contrary to the philosophy and the most effective principles of wikipedia and other social softwares.

Mr. Seigenthaler responded by trying to force a restructuring of the wiki tool–rather than simply fixing the error by editing the page (and publicizing that change, bringing the community editing force to bear), Mr. Seigenthaler attempted an appeal to authority. He attempted to track down the source of the misinformation, and then to push wikipedia to cease allowing anonymous edits. He moved to lock down editing, rather than participate in the editing. While this response was perhaps understandable, it reflected an estimation of the new tool, wikipedia, as the equivalent of the old tool, the encyclopedia or newspaper almanac. Mr. Seigenthaler’s “solution” to the problem of false information actually avoided all the advantages of the new tool, and enforced its disadvantages. I will return to this theme below.

Flickr, as an image-sharing site, is also an example of social software, which uses “folksonomy,” rather than a taxonomy, to categorize and reference the items in its database. As the term implies, a folksonomy is a taxonomy which is created and maintained by users, organically, rather than one which is imposed externally and a priori. Flickr is one example of this type of system, and works similarly to other folksonomy-driven social softwares, like, furl, and technorati. In all of these, when users post photos (in the case of flickr) or bookmarked websites (in the case of and furl) or weblogs (in the case of technorati), they do not post the content into predetermined categories (Michelangelo, Hajia Sofia, David, Napoleon), they post the content first, and then add the tags (as many as they want) which seem appropriate to them. And later viewers, creating their own search paths and sets of content, can add new tags, new slices through the datasphere.

Serendipitous searching, stumbling on connections, can produce new views of the material (the human in the artwork, the experiential perspective), and connections that were not easily seen before. The Hajia Sofia or Michelangelo’s David become not only “architecture” or “Renaissance” but also “vacation” or “gaffe.”  Seeing how others have categorized and linked and cross-referenced material provides a reconsideration of one’s own categories, and leads to an encounter with new material that wasn’t even on the radar before.

In preparing this very essay, I used furl (which allows online storage of a “favorite” or bookmarks list), to keep the sites I found useful. And because my links, and others, are publicly available, I was able to see that someone who had “furled” a site I wanted to use had also “furled” other sites with which I was not familiar, but which were relevant and helpful. There was a shared search, a communal hunt for information, with people I do not even know, have never met, but who know and have found things that I need to know.

User Reviews
The last new tool I want to discuss is user reviews. These resources are probably much more commonly used, but have received quite a bit less attention as a phenomenon, than the others I have discussed above. There are many instances of this type of resource, from epinions, to the user reviews on, to and the online faculty evaluations in the case of the unfortunate professor in Massachusetts in the vignette above.

In all these cases, users (or students) have the ability to post ratings, comments, and discussion of products, websites, classes, professors, or even individual lectures. At, for example, students can leave anonymous comments about their professors, rating them in each of three categories: helpfulness, clarity, and easiness—with an added category (denoted by a red chili pepper) for hotness. The site is not sponsored by any school, it is completely independent. There are guidelines prohibiting some of what the Massachusetts professor experienced, and the enforcement of those guidelines is heavily reliant on user reports of violations. Like in wikipedia, the community itself provides the bulk of the policing and correcting.

Of course, this type of evaluation has always been possible in newsletters, or letters to school officials or paper evaluation cards, but the difference when these responses move online is significant. In online reviews, users can make their ratings and comments—and respond to one another’s ratings or comments—with complete anonymity, and with extremely wide circulation and availability.

There are huge advantages to this type of tool. Leo Laporte, the “Tech Guy” on KFI radio, a professional, experienced and knowledgeable journalist and technology consultant, explicitly admitted this in a recent episode of his call-in radio show. A user called in with a question about a set of wireless headphones. Laporte, on the air, tells the caller that he is really not sure about the answer, “but let’s check the user reviews on I think these days,” he says, “more than the journalists (and I’m a journalist myself), it’s real people who really know how things work.” As he chats with the caller, Laporte goes to the Amazon website (the clicking of the keyboard and mouse are audible over the radio) reads the user opinions, and finds that the sound quality is excellent on these headphones…but that the headphones will not work with the caller’s treasured Ipod Nano.

Because there are so many, many user reviews on Amazon, posted by real people with real experience, it becomes possible to derive a consensus, a report with some real reliability which includes an unparalleled diversity of experience from users of many levels, with many needs. On the other hand, like in the vignette of the Massachusetts professor, the anonymity and the “culture” of the web (a subject for another essay) leads to an acceptance of flaming, harsh hostility, and irrelevant or inappropriate remarks (like the vandalism in wikipedia). In the best of cases, these are self-correcting, and the holistic picture which arises from the combination of all the reviews can even be more accurate, and certainly more accessible than “expert” reviews.

The anonymity of these reviews, while it is at one level unlimited, is at another level only a partial anonymity. Even the persona, the screen name or username (which is not a “real” identity), of an online reviewer is an identifying mark, and it does allow the reviewer to build a following, and a foundation of respect and reputation. A good name, even when it is only a screen name, becomes a very valuable resource when that name is literally all a person has as a credential for being a member of a community. Every login name, or screen name, is in itself a tool, a technique to be deployed and protected.

What Can We Do with These New Tools?

So we have this constellation of tools—these new methods of creating, sharing, categorizing, accessing and critiquing content. And in all of the cases, these tools, these resources, lack a central authority or a hierarchy of editorial control. In all of these cases the content and the conclusions and the references are communally negotiated and collaboratively assembled. And our students are using these tools. They are going to use them, whether we want them to or not, or whether we have thought about them or not.

I want to present some suggestions for how we, in the academic world, the college context, can use these tools to the advantage of our teaching and our students’ learning. In looking at any pedagogical tool or technology, I think the best approach is not to try to force it into a mold which does not fit (teaching online is not the same as teaching face-to-face, wikipedia is not Britannica). The best approach is not to reject the new tool as being unable to serve the same function as the old tool. A hacksaw is not a hammer. So when you try to pound a nail with one, and it doesn’t work very well, it makes little sense to blame the hacksaw. What I am suggesting here is not ways to hold the saw while hammering, or alter the shape of the nail, but ways to use the hacksaw as a hacksaw–or the new tools as new tools.

It is the very features that make these new online tools different that provide the places where we should look for strengths, and for practical uses. These social softwares raise a collection of questions, and those are the questions from which the practicalities arise. When we look at Google and wikis, at flickr and ratemyprofessor, we have to ask (and teach our students to ask) questions which are valuable and relevant in any academic endeavor—questions which are crucial to learning. Those questions include challenges to the nature of expertise, the limitations of expertise and narrow fields of specialization. They include questions about how to evaluate information, what criteria to use when judging sources. They include standards for what is appropriate critique, what is civil disagreement and what is offensive hostility. And they include practical lessons about how to use these tools successfully–how to formulate search terms, and how to identify posters and categories which work successfully.

All of these questions and issues can become tools for use in the classroom, once they are recognized as such. Practically speaking, I would suggest four areas in which activities can be designed. First, students can, as a class activity, actually use the tools—they can post user reviews, or upload their own photos or websites to flickr or delicious, and tag them. They can edit wikipedia pages, or start a class wiki.

All of these tools are, by their nature, user-friendly. More than that, and more important for the classroom context, they are (or at least can be) public. This means that students gain the increased motivational force of having their work open to a real (and wide) audience. When a student reviews a book or a film or a product or a service (or even a professor or class) for the purposes of the course or an assignment, the audience is the professor, or at most the professor and the other students. But when a student’s work is published, in a forum which is open and has the potential to attract acclaim and attention (whether positive or negative), the responsibility for the quality, efficacy and accuracy of that work is deepened.

Another way to use these tools is to have students evaluate them—and challenge them. Testing different resources one against the other, and against the students’ own experience and prior knowledge, can help them to explore the questions of authority, and introduce and reward a healthy skepticism as well as the critical thinking skills which college students (and all media consumers in contemporary society) desperately need. Of course, this kind of challenge and evaluation can and should lead directly back into the public participation. A more appropriate flickr or delicious tag can be added to an item, and subsequently explained, just like a wikipedia entry can be edited and the reason for the edit enumerated. Similarly, when students evaluate and compare the different items in the result of a Google search, they can also explain why those results differ, and provide an alternate, human-generated (student-generated) rather than machine-generated, ranking.

Many of these new tools (wikipedia is a prime example) include resources which explicitly foreground the contrasts, tensions, and challenges in the tools. Wikipedia’s discussion page for each entry offers the perfect opportunity for students to see (and take part in) the push and pull of deciding and negotiating answers and information. In the discussion pages, authority, credibility, agendas and biases are openly confronted and debated–so that the process is visible and accessible, and open to participation. In the earlier tools, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, this process takes place only behind the scenes, and users are presented only with a seemingly seamless, complete, product.

The third practical use of these tools is one that I have been exemplifying in this essay with the vignettes I provided at the beginning. Students need to know, and must internalize, the difference, for example, between an article in a medical journal and the opinion of a member of an online community. They need to learn how to judge and apply reputation points, or recognizable standards of reliability. They need to see the way that a rating can work on a real human being, whether a student considering a course, or a professor teaching a course. They need to think about how these posts come about, and why and from whom, so that they will come to understand the rule of the extremes (reviews come from people who are very pleased, or very displeased—the middle is often excluded). The ready availability and ease of comparison of these tools permits them to serve as object lessons, as examples and instances, in the course of teaching students to ask themselves, and challenge themselves with, the questions the tools imply.

Finally, these tools can work in the classroom setting to promote and reward a feature of learning which is too often absent in the classroom.  Serendipity (I would argue), is at the heart of any learning which hopes to produce commitment and permanent attachment. Serendipity, chance encounters, the lucky strike, and the joy of discovery are feelings that every successful learner has experienced.

I remember, as I am sure most other academics do, in the days before web research, browsing library stacks, wandering related sections, and discovering books I did not know existed, even topics or genres which were completely new to me, but which immediately engaged me and which I could immediately make part of my repertoire of interests, ideas, and information. The new online tools lack the sensual element of those library searches (the flickering fluorescent in one back corner of the library, the stained carpet—forbidden coffee?—in the medieval literature section—that particular smell and lovely crackle of opening a book which nobody, perhaps, had ever before removed from its shelf).

But these tools provide more fluid and multi-faceted connections than physical browsing ever can. Online, the link from Renaissance architecture to the sociology of crowd movement to Camus’ The Stranger can be just a single click, rather than two flights of stairs or six banks of bookshelves. Because of this, the new tools can make that kind of serendipitous discovery easier to achieve, and easier to incorporate into classes and assignments. The trail of breadcrumbs which might have been necessary in physical space is automatically constructed in cyberspace, so the joyful surprise can be rediscovered by others, or analyzed for later re-creation.

Caveats and Conclusions

There are some caveats and potential problems I want to emphasize before closing. The first of them is less a warning and more an exercise for the reader. I am a professor of English. I teach writing and literature, and I do realize and have to acknowledge that these tools may function differently for different disciplines. But the exercise for the reader, of course, is to think about how the suggestions I have made, how these tools and resources, can work in your own teaching in your own discipline. The principle remains the same—look for the benefits of the hacksaw, instead of trying to make it work as a hammer. So what kind of uses can a hacksaw have in your discipline, in your academic area?

The major warning, the major possibility of abuse, is the one that is exemplified by several of the vignettes with which I began. That danger begins if students, or we as professors, or (potentially much worse) administrators, decide that, or wikipedia or Google or flickr, really are hammers. If we try to use them without reflection,  as being the same as other (objective, authoritative, traditional, edited, hierarchical, obsolete media, pick your own adjective) resources, we will be abusing them, and we will end up with a broken hacksaw, an undriven nail, or worse, a serious injury, as in the case of the professor from Massachusetts.

The title of this essay, “Three Stars and a Chili Pepper” of course refers to a possible rating at—the place where not only the quality, but also the “easiness” and the “hotness” (that’s the chili pepper) of a professor can be revealed. In thinking about these new tools, the tools of social software, reviews, and folksonomy, we need to be sure to think about how we are judging, and what we are doing with, the material that is judging us, and that we and our students will continue to use.