Joho the Blog » Philosophical problems with folksonomies

Philosophical problems with folksonomies

[Note from the next day: This is a little embarrassing. I just noticed that this was first published in 2006. It came through my inbox on Saturday, and I carelessly thought it had just come out.]

Elaine Peterson, associate professor at Montana State University, has an article in D-Lib Magazine called “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy.” It’s good to see the issues taken seriously, and many of her premises strike me as true. But, I disagree with her pragmatic conclusion that “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers.” And I think I disagree with her philosophical critique, although I am not confident that I’m understanding it as she intends.

I read the article two different ways. At first I thought it was a critique of folksonomies on the grounds that they contradict traditional philosophical premises. The next time I read it, I thought it was simply pointing out the differences. Now I’m tending toward my first reading, in part because her section on the traditional defends it against some objections while about half of the section on folksonomies is critical of them.

Her philosophical criticism seems to be rooted in what she presents as the Aristotelian approach to classification: Things are lumped with other things like them, and simultaneously distinguished from them. Most important, she says, is the idea that “A is not B,” which means that A cannot be truthfully classified also as a B. But what about digital items that “can reside in more than one place”? That is “irrelevant,” she says, “since one is talking about a classification scheme, not about the items themselves.” I have to admit I don’t understand this. What is the philosophical basis for restricting things to one category if not that that restriction reflects the metaphysical truth that A cannot also be B? So, I think she’s saying we are to reject multiple classifications because such classifications are untrue metaphysically.

This reading is supported by the section on folksonomy, where she identifies philosophical relativism as “the underlying philosophy behind folksonomies,” and pretty clearly intends this as a criticism. (I personally am no fan of philosophical relativism, although there’s a longer story there.) The problem with relativism, she writes, is that it means classification escapes from the demand that A be A and not be B. I take this as indicating that, in her section on traditional classification, she is agreeing with the 1930 textbook she cites that recommends that classifiers give “emphasis to what the author intended to describe.” If you’re arguing that, on metaphysical grounds, things should only be classified in a single category, I guess looking for the author’s intention gives you a way forward…even though categorizing only by the author’s intent is to me like insisting that readers only underline passages that the author considers significant.

And this highlights what I think is my root disagreement with Elaine’s piece (if I’m understanding it correctly). It’s fine to raise pragmatic problems with folksonomies, as she does. But Elaine is pointing at philosophical problems. And those problems require assuming that folksonomists are trying to do what Aristotelian categorizers are trying to do. But they’re not. Aristotelians (I’m using this sloppily as shorthand, so pardon my “tagging”) are trying to find the one true and right category for each thing, creating a well-ordered system free of contradictions. Folksonomies are trying to help us find stuff.

Inconsistencies in tags actually make a folksonomy useful; a folksonomy that consists of 1,000 instances of a single tag isn’t worth the folksonomizing. But these inconsistencies are a problem for Elaine because she is thinking of a folksonomic classification as a philosophical statement rather than as a mere tool. She says that “perhaps … the strongest criticism one could make of folksonomies” is that because tags can be true for one group and false for another,

a folksonomy universe allows both true and false statements to coexist. Because tags are relativized, personal, idiosyncratic views can coexist and thrive in the form of tags, in spite of their inconsistencies. Readers of texts on the Internet become individual interpreters, despite the document author’s intent.

To this many of us will say “Hallelujah!” because we disagree with Elaine’s opening claim that all classification is about answering the philosophical question, “What is it?” Indeed, she’s a hard-liner: An inconsistency to Elaine is any multiple classification, not simply one that contradicts others. Classifying a dissertation about “Moby-Dick” under “ecology” as well as under “novels: 19th Century” would introduce an insupportable inconsistency (in Elaine’s terms). She seems to assume that tags are Aristotelian judgments in which we say that A is a B. But, when I tag a photo of my wife as “ann,” “birthday,” “2008,” and “family events,” I am not saying the essence of Ann (or her photo) is any of those things. Even if I believed in essentialism (I pretty much don’t), we could make use of Aristotle’s idea of “accidental properties” (non-essential but true) to explain what I’m doing. And if I tag Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” as “Angelina Jolie” or “tripe” knowing full well that I am not staying true to the author’s intent, well, tough on Oliver. Tags are not always truth claims, and a folksonomy is not intended to mirror nature. Indeed, a folksonomy can reveal the most appalling areas of ignorance and prejudice in a populace — and, pragmatically, we may well want to address those popular errors, especially since a folksonomy can indeed reinforce them

But, Elaine is right to point to the philosophical implications of folksonomies. An individual folksonomy may make no claim to providing the real truth about how the world is ordered, but the use of folksonomies generally carries some philosophical implications. Elaine sees relativism underneath them while I see a form of pragmatism. But folksonomies didn’t arise out of philosophy. They are a “found” ordering: Hey, we have all these tags, so why don’t we make use of them in a more systematic way? So, I think Elaine is mislocating the philosophical moment in folksonomies. Philosophy isn’t underneath them or behind them. It’s after them, in their effect. Folksonomies reinforce our move away from the essentialist view that every thing has a single category that reflects its single and real essence. We’ve been moving away from that view for a long time as a culture. The success of folksonomies as a tool reveals that we accepted the traditional Aristotelian scheme in part because it was useful. If its utility has been undercut, then we have to ask for the other reasons we should believe in an Aristotelian metaphysics.

The ball is in Aristotle’s court.

* * *

Most of Elaine’s outright criticisms of folksonomies are actually practical, not philosophic. She makes them without empirical evidence. She has not convinced me that she’s right. For example, her final paragraph says:

A traditional classification scheme based on Aristotelian categories yields search results that are more exact. Traditional cataloging can be more time consuming, and is by definition more limiting, but it does result in consistency within its scheme. Folksonomy allows for disparate opinions and the display of multicultural views; however, in the networked world of information retrieval, a display of all views can also lead to a breakdown of the system… Most information seekers want the most relevant hits when keying in a search query.

By “exact” she apparently means the results include fewer false results (where a result is false if the search term doesn’t really apply to the result, as when you search for “fish” and get back posts about dolphins). And that seems correct: A professionally constructed index should have fewer of those sorts of mistakes. But the second criterion in her concluding paragraph is relevancy, and there folksonomies well may beat a professionally constructed index. Not only might a folksonomy retrieve results more relevant to me personally or to my cultural sub-group, but it constructs a semantic system that can retrieve results the narrow and carefully categorizing by experts might miss. So, I disagree with her last sentence: “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers.” Traditional classification is best for certain types of searches — ones where you want precision over recall and relevancy, and especially where there is a confined domain of contents that you have to be sure you’ve searched thoroughly — but is not as good as a folksonomy for other types of searches.

In short, neither traditional nor folksonomic classifications are best. Each is best for something.

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10 Responses to “Philosophical problems with folksonomies”

  1. [...] Joho the Blog » Philosophical problems with folksonomies (tags: taxonomy folksonomy librarians cultural-norms classification myths tagging philosophy library metadata theory criticism) [...]

  2. Your redaction of the text introduces a particularly interesting tension between folksonomies and taxonomies which I’ve not particularly noticed before – even though I worked at a major online content provider on this very topic. In building a taxonomy of documents, the librarian tries to capture the *author’s* intent; but in a folksonomy of the same documents you capture the the *reader’s* understanding. This is a subtle and important difference.

    The fact that folksonomies implicitly contain multiple classifications is far less important than this difference in focus. Every library search uses multiple keywords (not necessarily related hierarchically) to describe different texts. I suspect that Ms. Petersen’s real issue is that she feels that she can do a better job than the millions of amateurs building the folksonomy. She is right, and a librarian’s taxonomy (ontology is a better term) is still valuable; but her point of view does not capture the reader’s understanding, and that is critical information.

  3. Philosophical logic just makes every topic just so dry and boring. I find it hard to accept any argument that reverts to logic in order to explore meaning.

    Nice work David for drawing it out so impartially and convincingly. High fives all round.

  4. I thought we had been over this ground once or twice before. Here, for your consideration, are some earlier thoughts on the article:

    http://listics.com/20061121748

    Which you kindly pointed to here:

    http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/frank_paynter_on_elaine_peters_1.html

    http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/beneath_the_metadata_a_reply.html

  5. I hit enter before properly arranging those links… should be in the reverse order.

  6. [...] and give varying levels of thought (usually little) to the potential upside of the change- maybe tagging and search really have vastly more potential than hierarchies now that our computers have mo…. Kudos to the Sugar folks for persisting despite that [...]

  7. Nice article, I Must say I think folksonomies are a great user tool.
    Flexible tagging and search offer fantastic userability improvements.

  8. [...] vs index cards By Martin Ross A lovely post from the God-like Dave Weinberger the other day, taking someone to task for missing the point of [...]

  9. [...] Joho the Blog » Philosophical problems with folksonomies [...]

  10. […] Joho the Blog » Philosophical problems with folksonomies […]

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