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So yesterday, Liz posted a request for discussion in anticipation of a session she's doing at a CSCW conference on folksonomies:

Is this a reasonable statement to make?
  • Tagging is the process of adding descriptive terms to an item, without the constraint of a controlled vocabulary
  • Folksonomy is the aggregation of tags from one or more users
Yes? No? Discuss.

I spent some of the day yesterday first figuring out what I thought, and second figuring out that it would be better expressed here than in the form of an overly long comment. And in the meantime, many of the things that I thought eventually appeared in the comments (of course). Even so, I thought I might wax a little old school here (since this conversation is actually almost 2 years old), and just write through some of the stuff I'm thinking about. I use the terms tagging and folksonomy without thinking about them much, and so reading through the comments thread and contemplating my own response has me teasing out my own terminology in a way that typically stalls me out --things get complex quickly enough to the point where I have to turn to other, more pressing demands on my time, and this has been much the same way. We'll see if I can place the pieces into something resembling a sensible order.

So, what is a folksonomy? One of the ways that I approached this question is to think about what folksonomy's other is. In other words, what is the term (or terms) or idea that folksonomy differs from? At first blush, that's an easy enough question--most descriptions of folksonomy make note of the fact that it blends folks and taxonomy, and the latter is its point of comparison. Taxonomies are top-down, folksonomies bottom-up. Taxonomies are consistent to the point of inflexibility, while folksonomies are fluid, dynamic, etc. So far, so good.

As I was browsing around (Weinberger, Vander Wal, et al.), though, I think one of the things that tripping me up is this apparently simple binary. Like DW, my assumption about folksonomy was that it referenced the order that emerges from the process of tagging ("I had been thinking that a folksonomy is one way order emerges from such set of tags"), as opposed to the kind of order that is imposed upon a set of data from above. In other words, I think that I've been assuming, ultimately, that taxonomies and folksonomies are two paths to the same endpoint.

But I think it's important (now) to note that the two paths lead to very different ends, a point that TVW's use of the term has slowly moved me towards. There's some overlap, to be sure. Taxonomies are forms of organization, but they are often also placed in service to other goals. DW has a nice riff on the Dewey Decimal System, for instance, that makes note of the ethnocentrisms and nationalism involved in the DDS, cultural asymmetries that are "necessary" because the DDS isn't meant as a mapping of all human knowledge but as a means to map out various libraries in this country. There is some practical value to spreading out call numbers evenly across the books on the shelves, even when those books reflect (and to be fair, construct) a partisan perspective. However, there's an extent to which taxonomies are (or strive for) an optimal representation of whatever data are being classified.

From a recent presentation, TVW explains that "People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks)," and that helps me get at what I'm looking for here. At the risk of trotting out another binary, there's a product/process difference here. Folksonomies involve order on at least two levels. One is the personal vocabulary of a given user; folksonomies are intrinsically social to the same degree that language is, but they need not involve multiple users (although they often do). This is TVW's distinction between broad and narrow folksonomies, I think. A narrow folksonomy is likely to express order only at this first level, in terms of a user's vocabulary. The second level of order comes from the broad, more social folksonomies, where many people are tagging the same object so that particular patterns emerge. For example, the top 10 or so tags for the article I just linked are folksonomy/folksonomies, tagging, tags, del.icio.us, flickr, metadata, socialsoftware, classification, taxonomy, and article. The tags across users (250 or so in this case) acquire a certain amount of stability.

These two "levels of order" I'm describing correspond, I think, to TVW's two "triads" (slide 32 of the presentation linked above)--one grounded in "identity" and the other in "community." The trick, I think, is that for taxonomies, there is no corresponding "identity triad," and so setting the two in simple binary form predisposes me to see only the second level of order as being "properly" described by folksonomy. And thus I was initially tempted to say that folksonomies are necessarily social (in the multiple user sense).

In a sense, then, I guess I'm working around to the idea that folksonomies are activities rather than systems or products, despite the fact that things like tagclouds, as visualizations of those activities, offer a static impression of those activities. A lot of the analysis that I see in TVW's work speaks of the trending that folksonomies allow, and that works for me with defining it as an activity--there's an extent to which a single tagcloud, produced in a given moment, only has value when it can be compared synchronically (to other clouds) or diachronically (to other versions of itself).

That's probably enough for now. I've got 3 or 4 wiggling threads that I want to pull on a bit more, but it's getting late. And before you say it in my comments, yes, I realize that I'm arriving here at ideas that have been circulating for more than a year. My point here hasn't been so much to say something new as to say it for/to myself.

And to satisfy the demands of November 4th.


Collin, this is a good write-up and overview. Thank you for diving into the presentation, as that is where much of the good current bits are (I need to get back to writing them up).

I like your pointing out the identity missing from the taxonomy, as that would increase the power of a taxonomy (from what perspective is a term used - accounting, bookeeping, CPA, novice Quicken user, etc.).

taxonomies are simply folkonomies that put on airs. Both are social, as people are free to deploy or modify them as they see fit. Difference lies in whether or not the "folks" feel constrained in redeploying a particular set of tags (librarians reshelving books in differing orders, library boards resisting, or public members even using the card catalog, etc.). People may initially access something through a particular memory representation scheme (searching a database, or walking the stacks) and then make modifications through available channels of power. Folksonomies are no more social than taxonomies, they just acknowledge it more openly and invite participation instead of pretending they are definitive and final (which they never are).

Hey Collin,

I've always thought that the "folk" at the beginning came not from "folks" but from "folk" wisdom. So folksonomies are like "lore" in the Steve North sense. They are a type of knowledge production which is somewhat systematic, but also aggregating and thus often inefficiently repetitive. So perhaps the binary lore/science would be helpful in thinking them through?

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