Dan at fffunction.co recently pointed me to a speech by Maciej Cegłowski, founder and sole employee of the bookmarking tool pinboard.in. You should definitely listen to the speech because it’s funny and interesting. I’m now working my way through Cegłowski’s blog like it’s a box-set and I’ve got flu.
Cegłowski describes how fans of the original Star Trek TV series founded a grass-roots fan-fic genre dedicated to stories about Kirk and Spock getting it on. This was pre-internet, with zines being lovingly made and photocopied and illicitly distributed. The naming convention for these stories was ‘Kirk/Spock’ (Kirk slash Spock). Next was ‘Starsky/Hutch’. Then ‘Holmes/Watson’, and so on. Hence ‘slash’ fiction.
Fast-forward thirty years and slash writers began using bookmarking services like del.icio.us to organise their stories online. If you’re not familiar with bookmarking tools, they don’t host content but, as the name suggests, help you save, organise and share links to stuff hosted elsewhere. Slash ficcers used del.icio.us to build an index of links to slash-fic hosted on disparate websites and blogs.
Slash fic was, in many ways, the perfect content for the del.icio.us model of ‘broad folksonomy’ end-user tagging. The genre consisted of dovetailing variations on a central premise (granted, that premise was TV characters having sex, and the variations were different ways they might have sex), and so lent itself to being categorised and subcategorised hierarchically, leading to ‘bundles’ of tags: tags with sub-categories. It also had a dedicated user-base with the motivation to do the tagging.
Here’s a not-particularly instructive screen grab of del.icio.us to squint at:
And here’s a comprehensive explanation of how the del.icio.us service used to work.
Unfortunately, as Cegłowski describes, del.icio.us got bought by Yahoo, who then mucked about with the tagging and bundling functionality and alienated the slash community. Many of them jumped ship to his pinboard.in bookmarking service (he describes adapting the pinboard functionality to suit their needs) while others formed archiveofourown.
MacGuffin could probably learn some lessons from the slash community, who were the first to recognise the benefits of end-user tagging as a literature curation tool. del.icio.us wasn’t designed with slash in mind, but the slash-ers saw what it could do for them, and established their own tagging protocols and hierarchies without waiting to be told how.
Cegłowski also discusses visual design, and its relationship to the slash community. It’s notable that the visual design of services like del.icio.us, pinboard, livejournal. quotev, etc. is ‘functional’, to put it mildly. Cegłowski posits that this actually serves a purpose for the communities who use them. By being utilitarian (okay, IMO unattractive), these sites deter drive-by trolls – useful for a community that meets online to share their stuff away from jerks (what does that mean for MacGuffin? We should make it ugly?).
It’ll be interesting to see whether MacGuffin users view the broad folksonomy model as intuitive or alien. Will end-user tagging work with literature that isn’t as resolutely ‘genre’ as slash? Will capital-L ‘Literature’ be as easy for users to categorise? Will MacGuffin users be sufficiently motivated to tag? I guess we’ll find out…
We’re holding a design jam on Saturday at MMU; I’ll post a report here. Perhaps by then we’ll have answers to some of those questions.