To lump or to split?

To lump or to split?

“It is good to have hair-splitters and lumpers.”
—Charles Darwin

Unless you are a compulsive organiser filing is a chore. Making sense of piles or files isn’t straightforward, as the rationale or difference between a pile and a file is often quite subtle. Someone’s piles are as good as files, so long as they don’t have to share their home or work. I have heard that some people simply create a new file for each bit of paper that arrives in their office, but this form of splitting must be so rare as to be apocryphal and probably has its very own medical syndrome.

A “lumper” is an individual who takes a gestalt view of a definition, and assigns examples broadly, assuming that differences are not as important as signature similarities. A “splitter” is an individual who takes precise definitions, and creates new categories to classify samples that differ in key ways.

But without classification and categorisation where would we be? According to the classical view, categories should be clearly defined, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Science and philosophy would have certainly stood still, and even shopping would be pretty difficult, come to think of it. Even if the Aristotelian view may have moved on a little bit, splitting and lumping are pretty handy tools for describing the world – physical or abstract.

Heck, I hear you say, why on earth does any of this matter in the world of OurLocality publishing?

When you write your article on OurLocality by default it gets assigned to a category called News, a bucket we created for you in case you forget to do your bit and categorise. But did you know that you can create as many categories as you like? If the categories are used well your website and our news archive becomes more useful, if not we have to rely on the quality of your content right down to the way you structure your headings and text to the way you describe images. Google will do the rest, and try and make sense of it all.

So what if you wanted to help your users find stuff, or perhaps guide traffic from search engines to your Blog pages rather than to your News pages? You would create a new category Blog, and describe it (yes you can add descriptions to categories – this is known as meta information). Create a menu item called Blog. In most minor publishing projects News, Updates or Blog might just cover it.

But if don’t believe that Google is all-knowing, and you don’t want your readers confused by your very interesting ramblings on biology, education and technology – to take a random mix, you will probably end up using a collection of buckets.  It will help you to make sense / retrieve things more easily in future. With time you’ll have a healthy crop of articles, perhaps further divided and categorised depending on your splitting or lumping tendencies.

What if you’re writing about the use of technology in biology education? Surely you then assign it to all 3? You certainly could and in some circumstances you would. But what if most or all your articles are about the use of technology in biology education? Arguably your categorisation simply wouldn’t be useful any more – using the universal test above – so you should either lump everything into a high level category e.g. BiotechEd. Or, find a sensible division to split your articles by. The user will forgive you for errors of omission, but not of commission.  If the user finds the same articles whichever category they list they will conclude that your website is broken or worse that you don’t know what you are doing.

At ourLocality we don’t insist on using a so-called ‘controlled vocabulary’ that forces you to chose a category, recognising that this would be one way of making things easier for your users. Still we thought we’d justify writing this article as a way of introducing a couple of extra new default categories. So from today all new sites created on Ourlocality will have a Blog and Gallery category (no prizes for guessing which tendency we’re from).  That is on top of News and Events (the latter we feel is somewhat under-utilised and diluted somewhat by variations on the theme).  The great thing about using OurLocality and WordPress is that if you change your mind about a category you can always modify your schema later.

To parody Darwin, it is good to embrace your lumping and splitting side at different times and spend a few moments figuring out an appropriate classification schema.