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« More on Social Software as a term | Main | Kayak? »

January 22, 2005

Folksonomies are a forced move: A response to Liz

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Liz’s fantastic posts on folksonomy (one, two) detail the new issues we’re facing or will face around folksonomic organization. In the first post, though, she takes on my earlier argument about the economic value of folksonomy, saying

Clay argues that detractors from wikipedia and folksonomy are ignoring the compelling economic argument in favor of their widespread use and adoption. Perhaps. But I’m arguing that it’s just as problematic to ignore the compelling social, cultural, and academic arguments against lowest-common-denominator classification. I don’t want to toss out folksonomies. But I also don’t want to toss out controlled vocabularies, or expert assignment of categories. I just don’t believe that all expertise can be replicated through repeated and amplified non-expert input.

I don’t believe that either, so I want to re-state my views on the subject.

I believe that folksonomies will largely displace professionally produced meta-data, and that this will not take very long to happen. However, I do not think that folksonomy is better than controlled vocabularies or expert judgment, except for completely tautological definitions of ‘better’, where the rise of folksonomy is viewed as prima facie evidence of superiority. This is not the position I take.

If I had to craft a statement I thought both Liz and I could agree with, it would be that technology always involves tradeoffs among various characteristics in a particular environment. She goes on to list some of those characteristics, including especially the risks from lowest-common-denominator classifications. So far, so sympatico.

Here’s where I think we disagree. She thinks economic value is another of the characteristics to be traded off. I think economic value is the environment.

Put another way, I don’t think it matters what is lost by not having professionally produced metadata in any environment where that is not an option anyway, by virtue of being priced out of the realm of possibility.

So when she says I am urging an uncritical acceptance of folksonomies, she is half right. I am not in favor of uncriticality; indeed, in the post she references, I note that well-designed metadata is better than folksonomies on traditional axes of comparison.

But she’s right about the ‘acceptance’ half. It doesn’t matter whether we “accept” folksonomies, because we’re not going to be given that choice. The mass amateurization of publishing means the mass amateurization of cataloging is a forced move. I think Liz’s examination of the ways that folksonomies are inferior to other cataloging methods is vital, not because we’ll get to choose whether folksonomies spread, but because we might be able to affect how they spread, by identifying ways of improving them as we go.

To put this metaphorically, we are not driving a car, with gas, brakes, reverse and a lot of choice as to route. We are steering a kayak, pushed rapidily and monotonically down a route determined by the enviroment. We have a (very small) degree of control over our course in this particular stretch of river, and that control does not extend to being able to reverse, stop, or even significantly alter the direction we’re moving in.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: social software


1. Tim Keller on January 22, 2005 4:24 PM writes...

Ultimately there will be developed a hybrid between professional vertical taxonomies & amateur horizontal folksonomies. As in any self-organized system, we'll figure out how to assign a value to the vote of each member of the network, based on the value of the votes of those who trust their opinion, calulated recursively. When that happens, we'll see that old familiar power-law tail raise it's head again. The most trusted members of the folksonomic network will be of the same quality as the professionals, but selected from the collective intelligence of the population at large. Best of both worlds, yah?


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2. John Gladstone on January 23, 2005 10:26 AM writes...

Socially engineered selection is put to effective use at the search engine. Thousands of users input data about data by just going about their business as usual.
The ramifications are exciting.
The painpoints of indexing (controlled vocabularies, metatags, and thesauri, etc.) have a new champion, an accupuncturist whose needle is an amorphous network of machine enabled end-users.

Think about Search terms (think tags) and bookmarks (think relevancy) from hundreds of thousands of users are captured almost casually. How long before the clever minions at Amazon who thrive on open API's draw the dashed line between search term and "best" match that all those users have selected. It's all there on one server, waiting to be culled.

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3. Joshua Porter on January 23, 2005 2:33 PM writes...

Folksonomies being a forced move is, in my opinion, the real insight here. This move results from a new, behavior-based system that works because it amplifies human behavior rather than making an "expert" guess. Google taught us this, and we've yet to accept it fully.

Experts are great: when we can't model human behavior. But when we can, as folksonomies do in part, we need to put our kayak helmet on and hang on for the ride, all the while remembering that the only *real* experts are the user experts.

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4. about dog health on January 25, 2005 10:35 PM writes...

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by Ellyssa Kroski There is a revolution happening on the Internet that is alive and building momentum with each passing tag. With the advent of social software and Web 2.0, we usher in a new era of Internet order. One in which the user has the powe... [Read More]

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