Folksonomy: A Game of High-tech (and High-stakes) Tag

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Narrow Channels
The social element in narrow folksonomies, the second category, is skewed more towards the individual user. Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and Technorati, a blog search engine, allow users to tag their own content so that they can easily retrieve it and help others find it. Although narrow folksonomies and resulting tags lack the social cohesion of broad folksonomies, they are incredibly useful for assigning pertinent metadata to content that would otherwise confuse automated searchbots— like pictures, which contain no text for robots to interpret. Even if Google could tell you that a particular picture contained a human, how would it know it was your Aunt Betty, or that it was taken in the summer of 2005?

On Flickr, the focus is less on how to promote something within a community and more on how to increase the findability of personal content. Tags can be private or public; if they're public, they can be searched by all visitors. Third-party users can view photos clustered under popular tags like "love" or "cat," although most traffic comes to Flickr in search of a particular picture or photo album. Although the burden of creating metadata rests mostly with the person who posts the content, social groups can use Flickr to create group tags to collect all members' photos tagged with a particular keyword together—something that Flickr calls tagography.

Technorati operates similarly, allowing authors of blog entries to assign tags to their own content and to decide which categories provide the best fit and chances of their article being found by the right people. Technorati also draws on links from photo folksonomies Flickr and Buzznet as well as bookmark-tagging sites like del.icio.us and Furl. 

Because of the sheer volume of new tags being added every day, Technorati relies on robots to sort new additions, allowing them to update as often as once every ten minutes. Technorati's folksonomies are among the most extensive on the Web, but lacking the community watchdogs like those at del.icio.us', they're also the most vulnerable to spam attacks or users attempting to game the Technorati tag system by stuffing it with off-topic or irrelevant tags. 

Clouding the Issue 
43Things.com, funded by Amazon.com, takes tags and gives them a purely social use. 43 Things is a social networking site tracking "181,984 people in 4,454 cities" doing "299,579 things." Instead of assigning tags to information, however, members assign tags to their goals and form communities based on shared tags. The 43 Things homepage displays some of its most popular goals in a tag cloud, with the most-tagged items—like "save money" and "learn to play the guitar"—written in a bigger font than the more obscure ones, like "be a back-up singer for Tina Turner." When visitors click on any tag, they are taken to a page where members who share that tag have posted their thoughts on how and why they'll pursue their goal, targeted contextual advertising from Google, and a button that will instantly add that goal to your own list of 43 things you'd like to do. Conceptually, it is equal parts Friendster, folksonomy, and Oprah, aimed at giving the Internet-savvy a place to connect and collaborate over tagged ambitions. 

The spectrum of tags that folksonomy generates can be a fascinating indicator of not just how people individually interpret content, but also how that content evolves over time. Tag clouds visually represent the flattened, populist folksonomy vocabulary, and they're popping up everywhere, even on commercial sites like eBay and Amazon (which calls them concordances).

Tags are listed alphabetically in evenly spaced lines, with font sizes increasing in direct proportion to the tag's popularity. The equation is pretty simple—as tags grow in popularity, they get bigger; as they fall out of favor, they become smaller, until they eventually disappear from the cloud.

John Herren is the creator of TagCloud.com, which was launched as an experiment in May 2005. TagCloud.com points its automated tagging system—based on Yahoo!'s Content Analysis software—at RSS feeds and creates a tag cloud out of the extracted keywords. With a tag cloud, according to Herren, users won't get a specific result, but what they will get is "a very specific context of a subject . . . It saves a lot of reading. The content is the tag." Though he currently uses an automated system to extract keywords—what a colleague once dubbed a fauxonomy—Herren anticipates "exploring the true folksonomy side of things" with more user input and tags in the future.    

Taxonomy vs. Folksonomy
According to Bob Doyle, Webmaster of Taxotips.com and an EContent contributing editor, there is no real taxonomy in folksonomy—instead, it's a "flat," bottom-up vocabulary with no categorical hierarchies. True taxonomies rely on a stable hierarchy of knowledge thought out in advance. As a top-down system, taxonomies rely heavily on centralized control of the structure and vocabulary, since findability hinges on uniform classification.

Traditional taxonomies have their limitations, and according to Reynolds, digital searchers are ready to break free from the "tyranny of the searchbots." For static information—entries in an encyclopedia, for instance, or books in a library—a taxonomy makes it easier to put everything in its place. Dynamic information—RSS feeds, blogs, or any of the other ways to stream content virtually—needs a more flexible categorization that can quickly adapt to change. Folksonomy "is built from the ground up by real users," says del.icio.us' Fralic, "and often much more interesting, timely, and focused, as a result." 

While folksonomy's flat structure might seem limitless (and unwieldy) in its spread, most people do feel compelled to add some coherence and organization to their personal tagging systems. Most folksonomists pattern their tags after others'. It makes sense, even for regular folks: for information to be found by the maximum number of searchers, its tags have to make sense to searchers. 

David Weinberger, who created one of folksonomy's most blogged-about analogies, compared the traditional taxonomical structure to a tree—the trunk is the central organization, and the leaves are the individual pieces of data. In a traditional taxonomy, the trunk of the tree is the controlled vocabulary, with each branch leading to a leaf. "Folksonomies are one way to organize the leaves," writes Weinberger. "The leaves are the individual resources that are being tagged and can be linked and organized in an indefinite number of ways . . . The point of the leaves is they let everyone organize in ways that are useful to them."

Peter Morville, who authored Ambient Findability and is one of the blogosphere's leading opponents to folksonomy, finds little value in user-generated tags. "It's so much easier to drag and drop an email message into a folder than it is to construct keywords that define its aboutness," said Morville in an interview with Gene Smith for the tagging blog "You're It!"

The drawbacks of folksonomies are usually just the flip sides of their advantages. For instance, a rich variety of tags can give users a broad context for the search, but it can also limit the findability of a specific piece of information, which could be found under any of its tags. Tags are based on personal associations, but if the community's popular associations don't match up with yours—or their choices in spelling and punctuation aren't what you expect—then you might have difficulty finding what you need. And there's no limit to how many tags can be applied to a piece of content.

Like Wikipedia entries, the collective wisdom of the tagging community is only as reliable as its members. "A lot of people tag stuff because they want to contribute to the community," says Greg Reinacker, founder of NewsGator.com, and those tags build a solid basis of collective metadata. If individuals lose interest in the community, however—what Reinacker calls selfish tagging—then folksonomy loses its richness of perspective, as well as its ability to make room for new ideas and content.

"There is a value in having something controlled . . . editor-suggested content," admits Reinacker, whose site manages RSS feeds for individual and enterprise clientele. NewsGator has control over what content will appear on the site but, with its new Folksonomy Request feature, does allow "user-suggested content submission." It's not a true folksonomy but Reinacker isn't sure that he wants to hand his site, which manages thousands of news feeds daily, over to the grassroots control of the taggers, whose reactions—while fast—don't provide the kind of structure that NewsGator clients want: "We can't rely on tags that aren't there yet," says Reinacker.

At one extreme, information architects portray folksonomies as inefficient and chaotic. And at the other, folksonomists are intent on tearing down clunky, hierarchical taxonomies. But the solution to a better searching system likely lies somewhere between the two camps. Doyle is convinced that, with the introduction of controlled vocabularies to tagging systems, folksonomies can retain their grassroots, human-generated value, while increasing general findability. 

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