Folksonomy and Dichotomy
by Walt Crawford
You’ve probably heard of folksonomy, either under that neologism
or as tagging. Some of you doubtless help create folksonomies as users of
flickr or del.icio.us or Yahoo! My Web 2.0 or Technorati or…the list seems
endless. Tag: you’re it—and you’re building folksonomies.
You may have heard that folksonomy will replace all
traditional classification and taxonomy systems because it’s so much cheaper
and so much more…well, fun…than cataloging and classification. At least that’s
what some people seem to be saying. “Some people” may or may not be Clay
Shirky. He’s probably the most prominent name in the “Folksonomy über alles”
camp,” but his statements on the subject vary a lot in the extent to
which he sees folksonomy as a universal solution and wholesale replacement for
traditional classification schemes.
An admission: I don’t tag (by that name), at least not yet.
I haven’t used del.icio.us or Yahoo! My Web 2.0 or flickr (except to view
linked photos) or Technorati (except for certain canned searches). But I’m not
a cataloger either. I believe I understand the principles underlying Dewey
Decimal, the LC call number system, and LCSH, but that’s as far as it goes.
I started collecting the occasional article and blog essay
on folksonomy about a year ago, when I started hearing how revolutionary it was
and how it was going to sweep away formal classification systems. That
collection was never comprehensive and no essay ever got written. I think I now
understand just enough to offer an opinion—and you can pick up part of it in
the title of this Perspective. I
considered “Ontology” (one of Shirky’s contrast words) or “Taxonomy” (a more
plausible contrast to Folksonomy) or even “Classification” or “Cataloging.” The
middle word could be “versus.”
The more I look at the situation, the more I see folksonomy
and dichotomy—that is, false dichotomy thanks to unwarranted
universalization. It’s yet another “and not or” situation: inclusionary
thinking vs. exclusionary claims.
A second admission: The first admission above may be false,
depending on your definitions of tagging and folksonomy. You could argue that
WordPress “categories” are tags by another name, and I do provide categories
for almost every Walt at Random post.
Note “categories,” plural. As in other tagging systems, I
can and do use more than one for each post. Some commentators claim multiple
topics as one distinction between folksonomy and traditional classification or
taxonomic systems: Traditional systems require one and only one “name” for any
item, where you can provide as many tags as an item seems to call for. That’s
another false dichotomy. There is nothing in classification and taxonomy
systems that inherently requires that they be “folders,” that items have one
and only one name. Ever seen a cataloging record with more than one subject
heading? Ever seen one with six? Sure you have.
Dichotomy is Overrated
I couldn’t resist that, and yes, it’s a play on one of Shirky’s
most quoted articles, “Ontology is overrated: Categories, links, and tags” (www.shirky.com/writings/ ontology_overrated.html).
The article may be worth reading if you haven’t encountered much background on
claims of folksonomy supporters. I’d also suggest Emanuele Quintarelli’s
“Folksonomies: power to the people” (www.iskoi.org/doc/folksonomies.htm)
and “Social bookmarking tools (I): A general review” by Tony Hammond, Timo
Hannay, Ben Lund, and Joanna Scott (D-Lib Magazine 11:4, April 2005, www.dlib.org/ dlib/april05/hammond/04hammond.html).
Between those three papers and links within them, you should get a good
overview of formal “pro-folksonomy” perspectives, noting that the authors don’t
form a monolithic set of views. Hammond, Hannay, Lund and Scott see folksonomy
as additive and complementary; Quintarelli seeks a “merged” middle ground.
Shirky—well, I’m not quite sure what he really thinks about the ongoing
role of traditional systems.
That’s the pro-folksonomy side. Naturally, some commentators
view tagging and folksonomy with less enthusiasm, including Michael Wexler of The
Net Takeaway (www.nettakeaway.com/tp/),
Peter Merholz of Peterme.com (www.peterme.com)
(see particularly “Clay Shirky’s viewpoints are overrated” in the August 2005
archives), and others.
Some (including many librarian bloggers and some of Clay
Shirky’s fellow posters at Many 2 many, www.corante.com/many/)
are in the middle—most commonly because they see both the virtues and defects
of tagging and because they see there’s no need to assume that one system or
the other will or should become universal.
I’m with that group.
Some “pro-folksonomy” articles make erroneous assumptions
about formal systems, perhaps in order to demonstrate the superiority of
tagging. Yes, call number systems require that a book be assigned one and only
one call number (it has to go on the shelf somewhere)—but subject
cataloging never assumes that an item can have one and only one subject.
There are faceted classification systems that inherently assign multiple
facets or subject categories for an item.
Others assume that formal systems don’t scale—that the scope
of the web is so much larger than anything in past history that tagging is the
only solution. While it may be true that formal cataloging doesn’t make
economic sense for every web page (although there are many possible levels of
“formal cataloging,” some of which needn’t be all that expensive), it’s easy to
underestimate the number of items that have received formal cataloging
and classification, or at least have been assigned subjects using a thesaurus.
Given the size of the RLG Union Catalog and WorldCat, plus the size of A&I
databases that include subject headings, I’ll suggest that at least a
quarter billion items have been formally classified (including duplicates, to
be sure)—and once you include the taxonomies in use for species, and all the
other formal taxonomies in use, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was at
least half a billion. Have half a billion websites been tagged? Possibly, but
I’m a little doubtful.
There should be no dichotomy. “Popular tagging” has been
part of the process of organizing and identifying items throughout history. The
web makes it easier and some tagging applications make it fun. I wonder whether
most web users are really interested in doing lots of tagging, but that issue
will be settled over a few years.
Once you eliminate the dichotomy—once you think “and, not
or”—I lose interest in trying to put down folksonomy or determine whether it
really is a superior tool for all applications. More interesting questions are
how tagging can be used effectively, and how tagging and formal systems can
best complement one another. I’d like to think that people smarter than I am
are working on those issues. I’m certain that people are working on
those issues who are better informed on the topics involved and far more likely
to produce good results.
A few things about some tagging systems do bother me. Consider
this list: blog, web, tools, blogs, search, fun, development, tech, tips,
toread. How many of those would you use as a way to locate something on
the web? Those are ten of the 50 most popular tags on del.icio.us on February
2, 2006. On their own, they’re largely useless—but in combination with other
words, they might (or might not) be significant.
That list shows one potential problem with some “folksonomy”
tools: Limiting tags to single words. Many concepts just don’t work as single
words. “Toread” is, of course, “to read” without the space—just as “webdesign”
and “web2.0” are phrases entered as words among the top 50. Why should such
subterfuge be necessary? When did English become a language in which there are
no nominative phrases?
Shirky, for one, makes a point of Google’s success relative
to Yahoo!—specifically, that Yahoo! failed because it attempted to classify
sites using a taxonomy, while Google succeeded because it ignored formal
structures. That analysis overlooks some messy truths, such as the reality that
Yahoo! didn’t fail: It gets a lot more unique visitors each month
than Google does, partly thanks to its combination of directory (formal
taxonomy) and search (text-based retrieval). Some times, a directory is
precisely what you need.
Those who believe folksonomy is the only future seem to
believe we’re all hot to tag, or at least most of us are. That has yet to be
demonstrated. I wouldn’t be surprised if it proves not to be the case. To some
extent, it’s true that folksonomy doesn’t reduce the cost of identifying items
so much as it shifts the cost—lowering the cost for those who might wish to
identify, but increasing the cost (in time) for those searching. If, in the
end, the population willing to keep tagging sites is only ten or twenty times
the population of catalogers and indexers, the overall retrieval cost of an
all-folksonomy universe might be considerably higher than the overall cost of
an all-cataloging/classification/taxonomy universe. But that’s a silly
dichotomy: An all-traditional means universe is out of the question—and I
believe an all-folksonomy universe is equally absurd.
Marieke Guy and Emma Tonkin, both of UKOLN, wrote “Folksonomies:
Tidying up tags?” in the January 2006 D-Lib Magazine (www.dlib.org/dlib/january06/guy/ 01guy.html).
Guy and Tonkin are “and” thinkers—they regard tags as supplements to formal
classification systems, not wholesale replacements. The article examines
“sloppy” tags and questions the usefulness of attempting to do too much
“tidying up.” It’s definitely worth reading.
A less formal “article”—technically, it’s a blog post, but
it prints out as a 9-page single-spaced paper complete with 38 footnotes—is
also well worth reading, even though I don’t care for
the title: “The hive mind: Folksonomies and user-based tagging” by Ellyssa
Kroski at Infotangle (infotangle.blogsome.com), posted December 7, 2005.
(I find “hive mind” a dispiriting term, but that’s me.) Kroski’s overview of
(some) tag-based applications and some of folksonomy’s strengths and weaknesses
is good enough that it convinced me not to attempt such an overview: Why
bother, when she’s done it so well? As a tease for the article, here are the
boldface-italic introductory sentences for the “strengths” and “weaknesses”
sections that take up 4.5 pages of the seven text pages of the article (the
last two pages are endnotes):
Strengths: Folksonomies are
inclusive. Folksonomies are current. Folksonomies offer discovery. Folksonomies
are non-binary. Folksonomies are democratic and self-governing. Folksonomies
follow “desire lines.” Folksonomies offer insight into user behavior.
Folksonomies engender community. Folksonomies offer a low cost alternative.
Folksonomies offer usability. Resistance is futile.
Weaknesses: Folksonomies have no
synonym control. Folksonomies have a lack of precision. Folksonomies lack
hierarchy. Folksonomies have a “basic level” problem. Folksonomies have a lack
of recall. Folksonomies are susceptible to “gaming.”
Kroski loves folksonomies, but she does a good job of citing
critics—and, of course, Shirky’s facile responses. You need to read the
paragraphs that follow those sentences.
Tagging isn’t going away, nor should it. Neither are formal
taxonomies and classification/cataloging systems going away. There’s room for
both, and there should be ways to use each to enrich the other.
piece originally appeared in slightly different form within Cites &
Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7,
Number 9, Whole Issue 93, ISSN 1534-0937. Cites & Insights, a
journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt
Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.
complete issue is available at http://citesandinsights.info/civ7i9.pdf. Cites
& Insights 7 (2007) is also available as an 8.5x11” trade paperback for
$29.50, exclusively from Cites & Insights Books at http://lulu.com/waltcrawford/.
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