Before saying anything about the Open Directory Project or the DMOZ directory it produces, I should offer several disclaimers.
- No editor speaks for the ODP, let alone for Time Warner/AOL/Netscape.
- No single editor’s opinions or choices control any edits in DMOZ, even if s/he is the sole listed editor of a category. Any of us can be overruled on any editing decision at any time.
- I’m effectively as new as they come, or at least was at the time DMOZ editing came back online (late December). There have been no new editors since the well-publicized outage, and I had next to no involvement with the project prior to the outage.
- Notwithstanding point #2, I’m quite opinionated, which I’m sure surprises approximately nobody. And my opinions quite often are different from those of the ODP mainstream.
With that all said:
In Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Ents were large, placid creatures, but ferocious when angered. They preferred to deliberate and act slowly, with Treebeard frequently admonishing Merry and Pippin not to be “hasty.” In particular, they liked to take decisions in a slow, communal meeting – the Entmoot. They prided themselves on their great courtesy (it took a whole day at the Entmoot to say “Good Morning”); even so, Treebeard was quite patronizing and peremptory to the hobbits. The Ents saw themselves as stewards, and indeed were well-meaning to those who didn’t threaten them directly.
All of this is an apt metaphor for the Open Directory Project, right down to the gentle chiding of people who actually want things to happen quickly. Any proposal to make a change in the ontology – often even including subcategories in a category where you are the only listed editor – is expected to be discussed first in the internal forums. These discussions go on for at least several weeks, until everybody has had a chance to chime in; often, they take months or even years. The number of forum posts needed to determine a category’s location in the ontology often far exceeds the number of sites actually listed in that category.
There are very strong strictures against any kind of rudeness in these discussions, or in private e-mails. Even so, the attitude of senior editors towards junior ones reminds me of that of my elementary school teachers. Junior editors – yours truly excepted, I must confess — treat senior ones with greater deference than I showed to Nobel Laureates and Fields Medalists when I was a grad student. That said, I don’t want to imply that juniors’ suggestions are unheeded. It’s just that there are all sorts of processes and precedents when decisions are to be made.
Is all this careful attention to ontology worthwhile? It doesn’t seem to do much for the visitors to DMOZ and its sister directories, because there don’t actually seem to be many visitors. (Do you see many mentions of DMOZ in your referrer logs?) Rather, the current significance of DMOZ is mainly its effect on validating sites as input to search engine rankings. But maybe the care paid to the ontology is needed as an aid to editing? I don’t see that either, but maybe I’m overlooking something in my newbieness.