Dynamics of human categorization in a collaborative tagging system: How social processes of semantic stabilization shape individual sensemaking

Comput Human Behav. 2015 Oct;51(Pt A):140-151. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.04.053.


We study how categories form and develop over time in a sensemaking task by groups of students employing a collaborative tagging system. In line with distributed cognition theories, we look at both the tags students use and their strength of representation in memory. We hypothesize that categories get more differentiated over time as students learn, and that semantic stabilization on the group level (i.e. the convergence in the use of tags) mediates this relationship. Results of a field experiment that tested the impact of topic study duration on the specificity of tags confirms these hypotheses, although it was not study duration that produced this effect, but rather the effectiveness of the collaborative taxonomy the groups built. In the groups with higher levels of semantic stabilization, we found use of more specific tags and better representation in memory. We discuss these findings with regard to the important role of the information value of tags that would drive both the convergence on the group level as well as a shift to more specific levels of categorization. We also discuss the implication for cognitive science research by highlighting the importance of collaboratively built artefacts in the process of how knowledge is acquired, and implications for educational applications of collaborative tagging environments.

Keywords: Categorization; Collaborative tagging; Distributed cognition; Sensemaking; Social web.