Creative Categorization at Instructables

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an
unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest
kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.
Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.
It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is;
its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden;
its wildness lies in wait.”

This quote came to mind when I saw the announcement the other day by
Instructables (a site on which people can share illustrated instructions for any kind of how-to project) that they were adding categorization via structured tagging:

Users may now tag their Instructable with two of eight categories: Art, Craft, Food, Home, Life, Not Liable, Ride, and Tech. Food, Art, and Tech categories are basically self-explanatory. Craft includes sewing and knitting as well as welding and woodworking; Home is for useful domestic organization and infrastructure; Ride includes cars, bikes, boats, planes, and other “things that go”. Life skills can be found in Life, while Not Liable is for anything that should come with a warning label- things of interest to 14-year-old boys of all ages and genders.

“Categories will make browsing and sorting Instructables easier,” Wilhelm says, “so users and advertisers can directly target their areas of interest.” It’s easy to search cross-listed projects, and Instructables in the overlap are often among the most exciting. A few examples:

Art + Tech = LED Throwies
Tech + Craft = Floppy Disc Bag
Craft + Not Liable = Marshmallow Gun
Not Liable + Ride = Kite + Ice + Butt + Board

There are a number of things I found fascinating here. First, obviously, I loved the categories themselves, their mix of logic and apparent illogic that nonetheless provides a better match for the topic than any strictly regular set of categories could do. How does “Not Liable” or “Ride” fit into the set of “Art,” “Craft,” “Food,” and so forth? Not by the logic of categorization but by the more subtle logic of a map that fits the territory. This is where folksonomy meets taxonomy: the taxonomy provides a language that allows the poster to bracket the entry with tags that locate it in a coordinate space that is uniquely meaningful and suited to the subject.

Closely related is the second insight: that such a language of tagging gains power by the constraint that allowing only two tags provides. Entries identified by tag pairings are necessarily at the edges of two domains, and are, as the press release pointed out, often the most exciting.

A small practical note: after reading the release, I tried a search on instructables using the tag pairs, and came up dry. The way you find the pairings is to select any primary category, and then look in the left navigation sidebar for the category listing there to find the intersections. For example, in the screenshot below, I’m looking at the “not liable” category, and from there can select any of the other categories to drill down. You’ll see that there are 26 “not liable + tech” entries, 19 “not liable + craft” and so on. (I sent a note to Eric Wilhelm, the CEO of Instructables, and he said that they’ll look into implementing the tag pairs in search as well.)

instructables screen shot

(Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Instructables.)

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  • Great points and nice to see a quote from Chesterton used in this context — I’m finding these sort of “poetry + logic” paradigms to be pretty compelling.