folksonomy, and people’s classification management 101

I think I was reading something about keywords, or tagging, when i first came across the term folksonomy. It looked familiar to me, like i had learned about it in school or something. I have an anthropology degree from back in the day, and terms like these were always being thrown around. Yet when i tried to construct a definition of folksonomy, i found that i only had a vague idea of what it was all about. So naturally, the next step was to look it up on wikipedia.

The first line went something like this: “Folksonomy is a neologism for a practice of collaborative categorization using freely chosen keywords.”

Not a good start. I’m thinking, “great. now i have to look up neologism”. So i did (but i won’t get into it you can read about it here).

If you read a bit further, the wikipedia says that folksonomy “refers to a group of people cooperating spontaneously to organize information into categories”. We see this type of thing happening all over the web, and if you use it regularly, chances are you’re already part of one. Some of the more popular examples of these include internet based softwares like Flickr, del.icio.us and Technorati which allow small communities of people to apply tags to posts, pictures, bookmarks, and just about anything else you can think of. The end result is usually a set of searchable keywords or topics that are all in some way loosely related to the subject matter.

The term folksonomy has been attributed to Thomas Vander Wal and is a combination of the words folk (or people) and taxonomy (which itself comes from the Greek words “taxis” and “nomos” – meaning classification and management). Put it all together and you’ve got “people’s classification management”[wikipedia].

This system is sometimes considered to be more flexible than conventional forms of hierarchical organization, because it doesn’t force content to be classified under a fixed set of categories. Furthermore, “advocates of folksonomy believe it produces results that reflect more accurately the population’s conceptual model of the information” [wikipedia]. There is a growing debate surrounding the subject of folksonomy with regards to tags versus traditional categories. Each side argues the benefits of either a Many-to-Many, or a Many-to-One based system. I think that ultimately it will be these new communities who decide what is most useful, and there is nothing that any 1 person can do about. It’s happening already, these people are the most vocal (on the web), they have the tools and they’re going to use them.

Flexibility is the key to all of this and it seems to be essential when it comes to managing large amounts of data.

Tags are simply more flexible than traditional categories, and by that i mean: Tags can do both.

They can be used loosely or in a strict (traditional category) sense. People who worry about order, structure, hierarchy, can still use tags. One tag per item, just like a category. Others, can go ahead and tag away to their hearts content. And if you’re like me you can even use both.

But you just can’t do that with categories. When something doesn’t fit into a fixed set of categories, out of frustration, we are forced to create a new category.. then another, and another, and so on. As the list of categories grows, it’s only a matter of time until you’re faced with an item that could easily fit into two or more categories. Many of the categories seem similar, and the solution this time is to classify the content under more than one category. Once you’ve taken this step though, you could already be considered tagging. The structure begins to collapse, categories as a system of classification begins to lose meaning. There seems to be a logical progression here that isn’t easy to deny. It just feels like the natural evolution of things to me.

So from my perspective, the debate was over before it began.

References:

  1. Wikipedia definition of: folksonomy
  2. Article: Many-to-Many: Folksonomy

Comments 6

  1. otis wrote:

    Welcome! :)

    Posted 02 Aug 2005 at 6:32 pm
  2. spokeshave mclachlan wrote:

    you have an anthropology degree and you don’t know what ‘neologism’ means. puh-leeze.

    Posted 28 Dec 2005 at 11:03 pm
  3. admin wrote:

    i do now..

    read: Dawning of the Age of Neology.

    enjoy!

    Posted 28 Dec 2005 at 11:41 pm
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