We present a semantic imitation model of social tagging and exploratory search based on theories of cognitive science. The model assumes that social tags evoke a spontaneous tag-based topic inference process that primes the semantic interpretation of resource contents during exploratory search, and the semantic priming of existing tags in turn influences future tag choices. The model predicts that (1) users who can see tags created by others tend to create tags that are semantically similar to these existing tags, demonstrating the social influence of tag choices; and (2) users who have similar information goals tend to create tags that are semantically similar, but this effect is mediated by the semantic representation and interpretation of social tags. Results from the experiment comparing tagging behavior between a social group (where participants can see tags created by others) and a nominal group (where participants cannot see tags created by others) confirmed these predictions. The current results highlight the critical role of human semantic representations and interpretation processes in the analysis of large-scale social information systems. The model implies that analysis at both the individual and social levels are important for understanding the active, dynamic processes between human knowledge structures and external folksonomies. Implications on how social tagging systems can facilitate exploratory search, interactive information retrievals, knowledge exchange, and other higher-level cognitive and learning activities are discussed.
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