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Folksonomy folktales

This article appears in the issue October 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 9]
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In reviewing articles about folksonomies and taxonomies, I found that while there were some interesting experiments in combining the two, most writings repeated the same myths, folktales and misconceptions.

A fundamental flaw in the vast majority of articles on folksonomies and taxonomies is the almost universal use of the Dewey Decimal System (or Library of Congress Subject Headings) as the example taxonomy. Using the Dewey Decimal System as your example taxonomy shows that you have no understanding of taxonomy creation and use in today’s world.

It’s as if you did an analysis of boats and picked the Titanic as your example. It’s really big and cumbersome, and it’s made of brittle steel held together with bad rivets. It costs too much and is too difficult to build. It’s slow and hard to steer, runs into icebergs and kills lots of people.

But wait, sailboats are boats too, and they are much smaller, cheaper, easier to build and lots of fun. And you know what, there are lots of taxonomies that are smaller than the Dewey Decimal System, easier to construct and use, less rigid, have built-in revision procedures and user input capabilities, and generally don’t suffer from all those "characteristics" of taxonomies that folksonomy advocates love to list.

Most of the articles on folksonomies are guilty of overhype, showing enthusiasm but not so much careful thought. For example, let’s take a look at the opening of an often cited article: The Hive Mind: Folksonomies and User-Based Tagging:

"There is a revolution happening on the Internet ... The wisdom of crowds, the hive mind and the collective intelligence are doing what heretofore only expert catalogers, information architects and Web site authors have done …. No longer do the experts have the monopoly on this domain; in this new age, users have been empowered to determine their own cataloging needs. Metadata is now in the realm of the Everyman."

My first reaction to that was, "Oh no, not another revolution! Didn’t we just have one last year and a couple the year before?" Maybe I’m jaded, but shouldn’t we be a bit more careful to not cheapen a good word? The printing press was a revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a revolution. The Internet is an ongoing revolution. But folksonomies? I think not. Aside from the revolutionary fervor, that quote also exemplifies some of the standard general folktales about folksonomies.

Folktale One: Folksonomies are examples of the wisdom of crowds.

Actually folksonomies are the exact opposite of the wisdom of crowds. If you read James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, the key characteristic for a wisdom-of-crowds effect is that no one can be aware of what anyone else is doing. The reason that a crowd of amateurs can guess the weight of a bull better than an expert is that every guess is completely independent of what the crowd is doing. If you publish the guesses as they are being made, what you get is not the wisdom of crowds, but the madness of crowds—the bandwagon effect.

Of course, you’re free to use the phrase, wisdom of crowds, to mean something else—perhaps that throwing a lot of people at a problem, regardless of how you set it up, will inevitably lead to a good outcome. But in that case, I would suggest that you read some history starting with "tulip mania" and going through to our current financial bust.

Folktale Two: Folksonomies are building bottom-up classification systems.

Folksonomies are not a classification system; they are an unordered, flat set of keywords that are ranked by popularity. Ranking words by their popularity can tell you a great deal about how groups of people are thinking. That information can be extremely useful, but it does not tell you much of anything about the relationships between words or concepts. In other words, there is no "onomy" in folksonomy.

Anti-taxonomy myths

Let’s shift from general folktales to more specific claims and myths about taxonomies and folksonomies. Another frequently cited article on folksonomies is a good source for the standard myths about the drawbacks of taxonomies: Folksonomies: Power to the People by Emanuele Quintarelli. The article lists eight drawbacks to taxonomies. The list is well organized and often repeated, but there is just one problem: Pretty much every single one of them is wrong, misleading or a known issue for which taxonomists have worked out methods to overcome through years of practice. Two of the key myths are the following:

"Hierarchies are rigid, conservative and centralized. In a word, inflexible." No they aren’t. Flat out wrong. Some are, many are not. Virtually every taxonomy that my friendly competitors and I have developed are designed to be flexible (offering alternatives), progressive (built-in maintenance plans to reflect change in users and/or corpus) and are hybrid models that include both a central team and constant input from users.

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