Thursday, March 29, 2007

Why Folksonomies Work



“A folksonomy is a user generated taxonomy used to categorize and retrieve Web pages, photographs, Web links and other web content using open ended labels called tags…//…the process of folksonomic tagging is intended to make a body of information increasingly easy to search, discover, and navigate over time. A well-developed folksonomy is ideally accessible as a shared vocabulary that is both originated by, and familiar to, its primary users” (Wikipedia)

As Voltaire wrote, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The point with metadata is not to create perfect metadata, but to create usable metadata. Hence, controlled taxonomies are not necessarily, as some IA:s argue, superior to folksonomies when it comes to supporting searching and browsing. Because to be able to create accurate and usable metadata, you need to have a very good understanding new content is to be used and how existing content is actually being used. And in many cases, the users know more about this than “experts”. So even if their metadata is not perfect in the eyes of the expert, they might serve their purpose just as good or better than the metadata that the expert can come up with. Or as Joshua Porter wrote in his article “A User-Driven Approach to Organizing Content”:

"One of the most promising features of folksonomies is that there is no disconnect between the user’s words and the words on the site: the users words are the words on the site!"

Many metadata initiatives, such as the development and implementation of controlled vocabularies, start with a high ambition but then simply fall apart with time and die a silent death. Why? Because it never gets to be a natural thing to use them. Creating and using metadata needs to be a life-style. To tag your content with the appropriate metadata should be as natural as naming and saving it. With folksonomies, tagging has become just that for many users – a natural thing to do. Not long after the concept of folksonomies was coined by Thomas Vanderwal a couple of years ago, Clay Shirky responded to a post by Louis Rosenfeld about the downside of folksonomies:

"The advantage of folksonomies isn’t that they’re better than controlled vocabularies, it’s that they’re better than nothing, because controlled vocabularies are not extensible to the majority of cases where tagging is needed…//…Any comparison of the advantages of folksonomies vs. other, more rigorous forms of categorization that doesn’t consider the cost to create, maintain, use and enforce the added rigor will miss the actual factors affecting the spread of folksonomies. Where the internet is concerned, betting against ease of use, conceptual simplicity, and maximal user participation, has always been a bad idea"

Very well said. You simply cannot beat ease of use, simplicity and user participation. On the Internet, this is basically a "law of nature". But that is not (yet) the case in most enterprises. I upcoming posts, I will write about how and where folksonomies can be used in the context of an enterprise.