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« Udell on Social Software Tools | Main | Elisabeth Kübler-Ross »

August 25, 2004


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Posted by Clay Shirky

Folksonomy, a new term for socially created, typically flat name-spaces of the ilk, coined by Thomas Vander Wal.

In commentary on Atomiq, Gene Smith, who generally likes the idea, lists some disadvantages of folksonomies:
On the other hand, I can see a few reasons why a folksonomy would be less than ideal in a lot of cases:
* None of the current implementations have synonym control (e.g. “selfportrait” and “me” are distinct Flickr tags, as are “mac” and “macintosh” on
* Also, there’s a certain lack of precision involved in using simple one-word tags—like which Lance are we talking about? (Though this is great for discovery, e.g. hot or Edmonton)
* And, of course, there’s no heirarchy and the content types (bookmarks, photos) are fairly simple.

A lot of this parallels the discussion around the continuing development and use of I am in the “Wenn ich Ontology höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning” camp, so I think Smith’s points are not so much absolute disadvantages as choices.

Synonym control is not as wonderful as is often supposed, because synonyms often aren’t. Even closely related terms like movies, films, flicks, and cinema cannot be trivally collapsed into a single word without loss of meaning, and of social context. (You’d rather have a Drain-O® colonic than spend an evening with people who care about cinema.) So the question of controlled vocabularies has a lot to do with the value gained vs. lost in such a collapse. I am predicting that, as with the earlier arc of knowledge management, the question of meaningful markup is going to move away from canonical and a priori to contextual and a posteriori value.

Lack of precision is a problem, though a function of user behavior, not the tags themselves. allows both heirarchical tags, of the weapon/lance form, as well as compounds, as with SocialSoftware. So the issue isn’t one of software but of user behavior. As David pointed out, users are becoming savvier about 2+ word searches, and I expect folksonomies to begin using tags as container categories or compounds with increasing frequency.

No heirarchy I have a hard time as seeing as inherently problematic — heirarchy is good for creating non-overlapping but all-inclusive buckets. In a file-system world-view, both of those are desirable characteristics, but in a web world-view, where objects have handles rather than containment paths, neither characteristic is necessary. Thus multiple tags “skateboarding tricks movie” allows for much of the subtlety but few of the restrictions of heirarchy. If heirarchy was a good way to organize links, Yahoo would be king of the hill and Google an also-ran service.

There is a loss in folksonomies, of course, but also gain, so the question is one of relative value. Given the surprising feedback loop — community creates folksonomy, which helps the community spot its own concerns, which leads them to invest more in folksonomies — I expect the value of communal categorization to continue to grow.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (2) | Category: social software


1. Gene on August 26, 2004 1:35 AM writes...

Great points Clay, and I think you're absolutely right about the growth in value. One of the biggest benefits of a folksonomy (I think) is how it extends the personal information architecture we all maintain (in varying degrees to do our work and keep track of the bits we like) into the social space. This is particularly true of the Flickr and implementations--because they make tagging so easy.

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2. vanderwal on August 26, 2004 8:39 AM writes...

Clay, you bring in some very good points, particularly with the semantic differences of the terms film, movie, and cinema, which defy normalization. A broad folksonomy, like, allows for many layers of tagging. These many layers develop patterns of consistancy (whether they are right or wrong in a professional's view is another matter, but that is what *the people* are calling things). These patterns eventually develop quasi power law for around the folk understanding of the terms as they relate to items.

Combining the power tags of *skateboarding, tricks, movie* (as you point out) will get to the desired information. The hard work of building a heirarchy is not truly essential, but a good tool that provides ease of use to tie the semantic tags is increasingly essential. This is a nacent example of a semantic web. What is really nice is the ability to use not only the power tags, but also the meta-noise (the tags that are not dominant, but add semantic understanding within a community). In the skateboarding example a meta-noise tag could be *gnarly* that has resonance in the skate community and adds another layer of refinement for them.

The narrow-folksonomy, where one or few users supply the tags for information, such as Flickr, does not supply power tags as easily. One or few people tagging one relatively narrowly distributed item makes normalizing more difficult to employ an tool that aggregates terms. This situation seems to require a tool up front that prompts the individuals creating the tags to add other, possibly, related tags to enhance the findability of the item. This could be a tool that pops up as the user is entering their tags that asks, *I see you entered *mac* do you want to add *fruit*, *computer*, *artist*, *raincoat*, *macintosh*, *apple*, *friend*, *designer*, *hamburger*, *cosmetics*, *retail*, *daddy* tag(s)?*

Having tools that help ease metadata creation so that it is easy, as well as having tools that help aggregate the metadata to build semantic understanding seem like they will move us away from Cory Doctorow's Metacrap view.

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3. Andrew on August 26, 2004 1:28 PM writes...

vanderwal: the "prompting with related tags" idea is excellent and seems totally obvious, anyone else using something like this? Check James Spahr's related UI ideas.

It does seem like completely free folksonomies would eventually end up looking like Usenet groups if some control isn't excercised over them.

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4. vanderwal on August 26, 2004 5:33 PM writes...

Andrew: I know of one of the social sites should be launching this soon. I had a conversation about the folksonomy with them. I can not say the exact one as it is not out yet and things may change before it is launched, but I do know every . It is one of the narrow-folksonomy sites. I am not sure how close it will be to what was described in the conversations I had, but I do know most of what they have done has been fantastic.

I think it may be close to James examples, but I have not seen either in action.

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5. Otis on September 7, 2004 9:02 AM writes...

Van der Wal & Andrew:

Regarding your question about suggesting tags - I've implemented something like that for Simpy and use it while adding links to my Simpy account all the time. The suggested tags are derived from the aggregate of other users' tags, and ordered by their popularity. Simpy is still relatively small, but one can already see trends, naming patterns, etc. This is exactly the Folksonomy that you and Clay are talking about. Some people agree on tags, others add their own, different ones, which trigger some other aspects of other people's minds. Some add tags in English, some in Chinese. No uniformity, but that is exactly what makes it rich. Very much the same as in the real world.

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