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What is a folksonomy anyway?

After poking around at Thomas Vander Wal’s site and writings (1 2) and at Wikipedia, it turns out that I think I’m wrong about what “folksonomy” means. (And, yes, I’ve poked around both before.)

Thomas seems to call a folksonomy any set of uncontrolled tags (no prior taxonomy, no controlled vocabulary) done by individuals and posted in public. Thomas likes the term especially if the taggers are supplying tags that make sense to them as individuals, rather than suggesting ones they think will work socially. I assume that means that he thinks that if (oddly) there were absolutely no shared tags at Delicious.com, it’d still count it as a folksonomy.

I had been thinking that a folksonomy is one way order emerges from such set of tags: Some are more popular than others. In fact (I’d thought), if you really want a folksonomy to develop, you give people some feedback about how others are tagging the same or similar objects. (Thomas has a useful distinction between broad and narrow folksonomies that applies here.) That feedback causes further crystallization around particular terms. There are other, non-folksonomic ways order may emerge, including using heuristics to cluster tags.

The difference is this: 1) Any site that enables free tagging is necessarily a folksonomy. or 2. A folksonomy is a way of developing a bottom-up taxonomy from the tags being generated at such a site.

If a folksonomy is #1 not #2, then we need a name for #2. And I have the perfect name for it: A folksonomy. :)

By the way, you can see the difference between the two in the Wikipedia article on folksonomy. It equates “folksonomy” with tagging. In the section of the article that presents problems with folksonomy, the criticisms are criticisms of tagging. For example, the first problem cited is that folksonomies “encourage idiosyncratic tagging…” But by what I thought was the definition, folksonomies actually help solve the problem of overly-idiosyncratic tagging. I was on the verge of “correcting” the Wikipedia article when I realized my definition was off. [Tags: ]

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