Prisoner: Er, no, freedom actually.
Prisoner: Yeah, they said I hadn’t done anything and I could go and live on an island somewhere.
Coordinator: Oh I say, that’s very nice. Well, off you go then.
Prisoner: No, I’m just pulling your leg, it’s crucifixion really.
Coordinator: [laughing] Oh yes, very good. Well…
Prisoner: Yes I know, out of the door, one cross each, line on the left.
From Monty Python, Life of Brian (1979)
And now, for the pure joy of killing the joke by trying to explain it, this scene of Life of Brian is funny for two reasons:
- the Romans allow the prisoners to self-classify themselves as condemned-to-death-by-crucifixion or free-to-go, even though the prisoners have every incentive to lie and save their own lives and no incentive to tell the truth; but
- the prisoners all classify themselves correctly anyway.
A lesser wit (like me) would have stopped at the first part of the joke and let all of the prisoners run off; however improbable the first part, however, it’s always the second part that gets the laugh.
Tim Bray is still wondering about tags, but what he’s really wondering about, I think, is the whole idea of self-classification on the web. Should we be as trusting as the Roman coordinator? Will web content creators classify themselves honestly? So far, the record has not been good — for example, web search engines quickly learned to ignore Dublin-Core-style information in the HTML meta element because, unlike the prisoners in Life of Brian, doomed by their own honesty, people who create content for the web lie. In fact, they lie a lot.
At this point, folksonomy tags are a bit of a cottage industry, so the incentive for lying is low (people are happy to tell the truth when it doesn’t cost them much). Self-classification can work when the costs of lying are unacceptably high and the benefits of lying are low or non-existant — for example, a departmental web site inside a government or large company, a member of a supply chain, or a major vendor with a reputation to protect would lose much and gain nothing by using deceptive metadata to pull in more traffic. That does not apply to the web as a whole, though. Once you move beyond established relationships (enterprise or inter-enterprise), trust is much more difficult to manage.
What will happen when tags become more popular? Will the current model be sustainable? Is there any future for using any kind of metadata to self-classify on the web? The answer probably has something to do with reputation management, though people are doing a good job gaming even that with link farms and comment-/wiki-spam. The crucifixion line looks rather empty right now.