Taxonomies and Folksonomies

Thanks to Steve Wheeler (aka @timbuckteeth) for picking up the conversation I started on Twitter  where I defined a Taxonomist as:

One who organizes information in ways that make sense to content providers, rather that content users.

Steve’s riposte was to define a ‘Folksonomist’ as:

One who organizes information in ways that make sense to his/her own community of practice or interest.

I know that strictly speaking the role of a ‘folksonomist’ may not exist, since folksonomies tend to emerge through the collective process of individuals assigning tags to things and that the creation of a folksonomy is the bi-product. However, this misses the point; the key point is that the information is organized in a way that makes sense to individuals working collaboratively, i.e. members of a social network who tag content are acting (possibly unconsciously) in the role of a ‘folksonomist’.

Personally, I like the following description of the differences between taxonomy and folksonomy:

A taxonomy is predictable, whereas a folksonomy is flexible. Taxonomies are imposed, but folksonomies are democratic.

I also liked Steve’s final summary definition:

In a taxonomy, the community defines the content. In a folksonomy the content defines the community.

I might argue that the ‘community’ in the first sentence is likely to be corporate-led and vastly different to the community in the second sentence. But that’s being pedantic. I like the overall simplicity of the statement and will re-use it often. I hope that Steve Wheeler hasn’t got a copyright on it!

One final point to allay any grievances from the guild of Taxonomists – I think that taxonomies and folksonomies can co-exist in the world of Information Management, and that they have complementary strengths.

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Taxonomies vs. Folksonomies

I wanted to get myself up to date on contemporary ideas around use of taxonomies vs. folksonomies and was drawn to a course being run by the UKeiG (part of CILIP). The course was led by a renowned and respected information management professional and Fellow of CILIP.

It was like stepping back in time 10 or 15 years, where metadata standards, structured lists, taxonomies, thesauri and controlled vocabularies were paramount in the discipline of effective information management. Discussion on folksonomies, and social bookmarking (the original reason for my attendance) was sadly limited to a brief 10 minute slot at the end of the day. This led me to wonder whether professional bodies such as CILIP had truly grasped the magnitude of the change now taking place in the social computing space, and indeed, whether the social element of information management was recognised at all.

I was reminded of the unnecessarily over-complex government metadata schema e-GMS (a superset of Dublin Core) and the even more complex government subject tag encoding scheme, the Integrated Public Sector Vocabulary (IPSV), now over 8000 terms I’m reliably informed. Though I appeared to be the only one present who understood the connection between ‘over complex’ and ‘poorly implemented’. I thought it was common knowledge that many (most?) departments and organisations in the public sector arbitrarily picked a convenient high-level term from IPSV to classify all their web pages just so that they could tick the box for being IPSV compliant. I wonder how long it’s going to be before this ludicrous standard is consigned to the ‘good idea at the time but impractical to implement‘ bin by the folk over at the Cabinet Office.

Furthermore, I was not convinced by the argument put forward by the course leader as to the benefits of accurate and consistent use of IPSV terms for ensuring good search results. Searching on the term ‘wellington’, could, we were told, return results about the Wellington boot, Wellington New Zealand or the Duke of Wellington.

Right. But if users are foolish enough to use one search term without giving any context, then they deserve to get mixed and irrelevant results. One of the good things about Google is that it has conditioned most people on how to construct reasonably good search queries. I wonder how many users in the public sector would think to themselves as they surveyed their mixed bag of results from the ‘Wellington’ query “mmm, I must contact the webmaster about ensuring IPSV terms are more accurately applied” and how many would refine their search to something like ‘Wellington boot’, Wellington NZ’ or ‘Duke of Wellington’? Indeed, as far as a Google web search is concerned, complete absence of the IPSV meta-tag will make not a jot of difference to the search results because Google know they can’t rely on subject metadata in their search algorithms.

Then at last we finally got to discuss taxonomies and folksonomies. It was clear that folksonomies were not favoured by the course leader, who quickly demonstrated a tag cloud on Flickr, but without explaining why some tags were in a larger font than others (indicating their frequency of use) or the social networking aspect of how the tags got created in the first place. The sole reason put forward as to why folksonomies were not as good as taxonomies for information retrieval was the cost of tagging (?), conveniently forgetting – it seems – that taxonomies also require use of tags.

So, for the benefit of Librarians and other information professionals, and particularly the ones on the course I attended, here is my slightly more detailed analysis of the relative merits of taxonomies and folksonomies:

Central control Democratic creation
Top-down Bottom-up
Meaning to the author Meaning to the reader
Process to add new Just do it
Accurate Good enough
Navigation Discovery
Restrictive Expansive
Defined vocabulary Personal vocabulary

As always, I am open to other views and opinions from my peers and experts in this field, and in particular I want to be reassured that information management professionals do understand that there is a quiet revolution happening in the world of social computing that threatens some long established standards and practices for effective management of information, and that there are now some new tools in the toolbox.

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