Keywords, folksonomies and Ghanaian barber shop signs

In thinking about how to build an index of bridgeblogs (weblogs intended for a global, as well as local audience) from around the world, I’ve been subscribing to a couple of new feeds: all photos on Flickr tagged “ghana”, every page tagged “ghana” on del.icio.us, any page on Technorati that mentions “ghana” and any page with an explicit “ghana” tag on Technorati.

An early observation – hand-tagging kicks the keyword searching’s butt when it comes to identifying relevant results. For the last week, every flickr and del.icio.us post tagged as “ghana” has been about Ghana, in one fashion or another; that’s true for about 20% of the keyword matches on Technorati. Lots of Technorati keyword matches pull up Ghana as one of a hundred nations listed on a post or a story (pull-down menus to select country of origin are particularly problematic) – others have a passing reference to Ghana, usually in the context of 419 scams, or as a placeholder to mean “godforsaken poor nation I’ve never been to and know nothing about”.

I’m also discovering a lovely form of blog spamming. Say you want to “own” the keyword “banking” in engines like Google. One popular strategy seems to be to take a number of legitimate articles about banking, written in the trade press, and post them in their entirity to your blog. Link your blog in multiple places to the page you’re trying to promote. I have no idea if it works to improve your Google juice, but it’s sure frustrating to me – I see you linking to an article about Ghanaian banking and assume you’re maintaining an interesting blog on international financial systems, while you’re mostly trying to promote your mortgage refinancing business.

None of this is Technorati’s fault – these problems are true for any keyword-based search engine. And manual tagging systems benefit from the fact that they’re usually too young to have anyone spamming them. But this whole experience is making me very hopeful that David Weinberger is right, and that user-created “folksonomies” are going to revolutionize how we use the net.

That said, it’s hard to beat keyword-surfing for pure serendipitious fun. I just found a post about Ghanaian barber shop signs on Ghost of a Flea, cribbed in turn from robot action boy. It leads to a gallery exhibition of Ghanaian barber shop signs, as well as barber and hair-braiding signs throughout the region.

(Some cultural context: in a number of West African cities, some barbers ply their trade by walking around a neighborhood, carrying a sign and a box filled with combs and scissors. They bang a pair of scissors against the wooden sign to attract attention. When they find a customer, the box becomes a stool to sit on, and the customer can point to a model hairstyle on the sign. It’s an instant barber shop – just add customers.)

The gallery exhibition, in turn, sent me downstairs with my camera to document one of my prized posessions, a barber shop bought by my roommates Stephanie and Raoul in Accra in 1993. They’d concluded (very wisely) that Ghanaian barber signs were going to be one of the next big art trends and started walking around Accra, offering barbers $10-20 for their signs, which was usually a subtantial profit over what they’d paid for them. They filled a crate with signs, sent them home to Chicago, and may well have sold several of them to the gallery mentioned above. My sign was too big to fit in the crate, so it lived in my Accra living room until mid-1994, when I brought it home in my suitcase, and it now graces my Lanesboro living room.

On my last few trips to Ghana, I’ve seen very few of these barber shop signs. I get the sense that there are fewer barbers who walk around with clippers, a bench and a sign, and more fixed-location barber shops these days. I wonder to what extent that trend is due to American and European art collectors? Or maybe Accra’s barbers have simply given up hope that I will ever cut off my (rapidly thinning) long hair…?

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