Alex Wright

Conundrums, Clusters, Ketchup and Mustard

October 11, 2004

Peterme takes Malcolm Gladwell's Ketchup Conundrum as a launching point for pondering the perils of cluster analysis, and finds a juicy analogue between targeted marketing in the packaged food industry ("multidimensional scaling," in marketingspeak) and the non-hierarchical ideal of faceted classification:

[T]here's an irony that information architects, who work in a medium as malleable and multivalent as hypertext, which ought to mean it's a lot easier to tailor content, presentation and organization to different audiences, confine themselves to One True Organizations, while the PACKAGED FOOD INDUSTRY, some seeming dinosaur of mass production, provides the variety of approaches that people seek. It's a good analogy, but I think it only stretches so far. It seems to me that packaged food companies enjoy the advantage of elastic distribution channels (the bodega, the Wal-Mart, the restaurant wholesaler), whereas companies going to market on the Web have to do so through a pretty constrained 800x600 front door - one that often demands at least the appearance of top-down hierarchy. And while I'd certainly agree that Web pages are becoming anachronisms, I still have a hard time picturing what a multidimensionally scaled version of would look like.

The problem is transparency. Offline, companies enjoy a kind of translucence in how they go to market; the bodega customer never sees what the restaurant is serving, so the individual customer only has to deal with a manageable number of choices. But the Web has a way of laying everything bare, of turning marketing subtleties into customer confusion, and often leading companies away from multivalence and towards explicitness, simplification and, yes, hierarchy.

Still, I think Peter's points are well taken, and deserve further pondering.

File under: Semantic Web

« Class of 1984 | Named entity extraction »


Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

Mastering Information Through the Ages

New Paperback Edition

“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times     

Buy from