Thanks again to all of you for taking the time to read and comment on this admittedly very abstract article. Mulling over your comments during the past week, I’ve had a chance to think a bit more about the practical implications of adding a new metaphor to describe what it is that we do when we make websites.
The most basic practical implications of this article, I think, have nothing to do with its content and everything to do with stirring up the kind of conversation we’re seeing here. The occasional questioning of a discipline’s foundational assumptions is necessary for that discipline to grow—from conversation and argument grow new ideas that can push the discipline in new directions. Frankly, I rather wish more folks who commented here disagreed with me. For the sake of the profession, anyway. :-)
In any case, looking back at the article again, I think the practical core of the article is a call for user-centric design. This is certainly not a novel idea, but there can never be enough reminders that we should be building websites for our users, and not for ourselves or our clients.
More specifically, it is a challenge to change the process by which we as web designers determine a site’s structure. I love the idea (raised by a number of commenters) of building a website like paths on a college campus, allowing users to create the map, charting the natural flows of information the way one would chart foot traffic through the quad. At first glance, this ideas sounds a bit absurd when applied to an informational website—how, and why, would you build a site with no structure at all and then expect people to be able to find anything? I think some sort of underlying structure would be nescessary—after all, on the campuses in question, classroom buildings, dorms, and other landmarks are presumably built with some sort of relationship already implied.
The folksonomy approach suggested by some commenters addresses the aim to allow users to determine structure, but I’ll confess that I don’t think I’ve yet seen a truly successful folksonomy-based site (if you know of one, please set me straight). Unfortunately, folksonomies get very unwieldy very quickly (I’m imagining billowing thunderclouds of tags), which can impede their usefulness. So I wonder: are there ways other than tag clouds to implement a folksonomy system? I suppose sites like Digg.com might be considered a folksonomy of sorts, in which users’ voting up or down of content partially determines that content’s relationship to the content around it. Conceivably a system like that might not only help determine which content users found most useful, but also enable them to have a say on how content should fit together on the site.
I guess I’ve started wandering into slightly more theoretical territory once again, but I remain very curious as to what the readers of ALA see as the practical import of all of this theoretical talk, if any, and I throw the question out to you: how might seeing yourself as a cartographer as well as an architect change the way you work?