Thursday, May 04, 2006

ouija bored

What encourages mindless compulsive behavior, plays into a current fad, and creates little of value while promising so much?

The ESP Game, that’s what.

I should know. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many hours I’ve spent playing this game. Let it suffice to say: I belong in a 12-step program. That’s how bad it is. They’re sending over a squadron of recovering solitaire players to stage an intervention.

Here’s how the game works: You login to the site using your player identity. You’re paired with someone else who’s also currently connected to the site. Then the two of you are given two-and-a-half minutes to tag ten images with new tags (some already have a few tags assigned by previous pairs of players). Whenever the two of you match, the tag is applied to the image and you receive some points. These are added to your cumulative score. You never know who you’re paired with, although sometimes I imagine my counterpart to be a twelve year old boy hyper from MSG-saturated Doritos washed down with a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew.

“What’s a tag?” you might ask.

For those of you who have lives and haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the plastic box where all your imaginary friends live, a tag is a word that serves as descriptive metadata. Tags are all the rage. They’re social. They’re hot. They’re not stuffy like MARC records. You don’t need to be a cataloger to tag. No siree Bob. Websites are tagged via people like you and me using services like, blogmarks, blinklist, jots, clipclip, spurl, furl, simpy, Technorati, and god knows what else. Several more have probably been announced as I’ve been typing this. In fact, I may have made up a few in that list. Sounds like it, doesn't it?

Tags. We just say what we see and do what we do. What could be easier and more useful?

Did I say useful? I didn’t mean it. Honest.

If you play the ESP Game compulsively like I did today, you're supposed to rationalize your behavior by saying: “I’m doing something useful. I’m making all those images, all those photos and drawings and jpegs and gifs and pngs, accessible to everyone else. I’m contributing. I’m working for the social good.”

But it’s not true.

Librarians have long warned against amateur metadata mavens.

You’ll see why if you play the ESP Game.

For one thing, good metadata is not only useful when it comes time to look for something. It should also do other hard work, like describe what you see and establish the image’s provenance. This isn’t just a painting of yellow flowers in a vase; this is a photograph of van Gogh’s Sunflowers taken by Tsholofelo Reichenbach when he’s not busy sending online pharmacy spam.

The poor compulsives who play the ESP Game pick tags to match each other; they’re don’t have an eye toward use nor do they demonstrate any domain expertise. A photo of newly appointed ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito is tagged man, tie, white, suit, and maybe dude or guy or old. Okay – that’s some helpful tagging if you think to yourself, “y’know, I want to find a photo of the newest Supreme Court justice. Aren’t those guys usually old white guys? And they don’t go for casual wear: I bet he’ll be wearing a suit and tie. The black robes, they don’t wear them when they’re out on the street.”

In fact, the longer you play the ESP Game and the higher the score that you attain, the worse your tags become. With experience, you know you’ve got a better chance of matching your fellow tagger if you go for generic, for colors, for shapes, for frequently-used terms. If I didn’t know better, I’d say players were trying to imitate all of the problems and deficiencies people cite for image recognition software.

Here. Let me show you. I’ll let you look over my shoulder while I play a game. Right now, I’m the highest scoring player of the day. You’ll see why I’m so embarrassed. This was a perfect round – my partner and I matched all ten in our brief mental liaison. If this were eHarmony, we’d be getting hitched.

Here’s one that was already tagged girl when we got there. We added pink. When in doubt, add a color. If there’s already a color, you can’t apply that strategy though. It’s a Flickr photo, so maybe this is as good as it gets if you don’t know the girl, the photographer, or the circumstances. Don't try to be too specific about the color though: you'll never match on aqua, only blue and green. And no matter how little red there is, go for it: it's a very popular tag.

Ah, here’s one from the news. Shit. Someone’s already given this photo the helpful descriptor man. He’s someone in the Spanish-speaking world, perhaps a soccer star. Definitely a someone. But we don’t know that. To us, he’s just a man with hair. Yep. Hair was the salient feature we picked out for this guy. That’ll help someone who’s looking for men who aren’t bald.

We don’t recognize this guy either. He’s a TV newsman on MSNBC. He’s already tagged with man old gray. He doesn’t look that old to me, but then again, we know this kind of thing is relative. He obviously looks old to some of my social-software compatriots playing the ESP Game. My partner and I added smile to the list. Nice, huh? Reminds me of that old bumper sticker: “I love your smile.” We can tell he's not a 70's smiley face because that'd be tagged yellow, not gray.

So far I’ve seen a few celebrities tagged with proper nouns. Everyone apparently recognizes Howard Stern. Angelina Jolie. George Bush. Cher. Gwen Stefani. But not Tony Blair. And certainly not Colin Powell. I already told you about Samuel Alito. Even sports stars and supermodels don’t rate identities. Supermodels in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue are reduced to their essential components: boobs, girl, beach, and hot. Later in this round, in defiance of this stated wisdom (and the fact that we can’t see her boobs), we’ll tag Heidi Klum with bikini to add to the poetic tag, butt.

Ohhh. Speaking of beaches and oceans, here’s an old favorite. The anemones. I’ve seen this image about a dozen times in different rounds and I’ve never managed to have a partner who can identify them. Ha! Bingo! We’ve got it: anemones. Add that to sea. It’s an out-of-focus Flickr image, but we’ve got it pegged. I think. It’s a moment: we might’ve added some useful metadata to this ill-focused photo. Unless it’s already tagged anemones in Flickr. Which it seems to be, amid lots of in-focus pictures of anemones. So it’s a helpful tag unless quality’s an issue. In which case, you'd choose one of the other photos. One that's in focus.

When you play this game, you realize just how many images on the Web are simply logos, buttons, banners, and bits of color. That’s why we’ve tagged this one Yahoo and blue. Think there’ll be a lot of people looking for it? Sure. It’ll come in handy for the person who is composing those phishing messages. Gotta have those Bank of America logos and realistic eBay and PayPal graphics if you're going to fool anyone.

Just one more, okay? I know you’re not as compulsive as I am. You may even be getting tired of one perfect, closely narrated round of the ESP Game. We Phenoms (not kidding! I'm a Phenom!) like to see these. They’re an easy match, just human OCR. Before my partner and I got here, this one’d already been labeled lifestyle mobile add-ons. We added rectangle. And I’m sure the next set of players – if they’ve got any chops at all in the ESP Game – will add a resounding blue or green to round out the description. It’s the next guys that’ll be up shit creek. That’s when things get creative. Sometimes shapes are exaggerated: this rectangle will become a square. Maybe red will match. Or Jackie. I’ve seen a few Jackies. Makes me think that some people chafe at the game’s anonymity.

Every once in awhile, you do see evidence of this game's sociality. I saw a modest-looking schoolgirl holding an open book tagged whore and a landscape without a donkey in sight tagged ass. It makes you feel just a little bit better. It's not as stupid as we thought: people find ways to join forces, to collude, to circumvent the anonymity straitjacket, to be subversive, to be thirteen, to have some fun. I tagged G.W. as an assclown in one round, but my partner and I didn't see eye-to-eye.

But while I'm telling you about this, the game goes on. Better get back to it. Otherwise I may lose my status as today’s top player.

I’m not competitive.

Just compulsive.


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