Folksonomy: classify the world the way you want

THE WEB | Ahmad Humeid explores the emergent ‘tagging’ phenomena

You’re looking at a picture of a black and white football laying on the grass. If I ask you to describe the picture with a few words you might say ‘sport’, ‘ball’ and ‘black and white’. If I ask another person other words might pop up like ‘round’, ‘grass’ and ‘green’. Ask yet another person and the words ‘leather’, ‘soccer’ and ‘football’ might be used.

What all these descriptions have in common is that they are all describe the picture in a ‘correct’ manner. If someone finds the picture boring, it would not be ‘wrong’ to label it as such, right?

The same thing would happen if I ask people to classify a certain book’s subject matter. Lets say the book is a political thriller novel that is set in England and involves a love story. While most people will classify it under the ‘novel’ category, the secondary descriptions might vary between ‘love’, ‘England’, ‘politics’, etc.

All of these descriptions become important when we want to categorize and classify our world. Categorization is human nature. We classify everything: objects, information, animals, plants and so on. The word ‘Taxonomy’ (Greek: taxinomia, from the words taxis = order and nomos = law) refers to either the classification of things, or the principles underlying the classification.

Without taxonomy, how would the shelves of a library be organized? It would be a total mess. Since ancient times, we have entrusted specialized people to classify the world for us. Remember Dewey’s decimal system of library classifications?

Now fast forward to the internet age. When Yahoo first launched it was nothing more that a classified directory of links to the different sites that existed on the internet. On the web, the physical limitations of libraries disappeared. Thus, on Yahoo, a site could be put under more that one category. It’s as if multiple copies of the abovementioned novel would be distributed on multiple library shelves.

But Yahoo’s directory remained, more or less, a taxonomy of sites that was determined by someone or some committee.

Now, with millions of people on the net, the full potential of the internet as the human race’s collective library is being realized. The net democratizes the production and access to information. Shouldn’t it also democratize the classification of information? Couldn’t ‘folks’ like us, collectively and collaboratively classify the world the way we want to? Well.. that’s what’s called ‘folksonomy’!

It is classification by the people for the people. In other words: throw away the library shelves and send the librarian home. On the net any of us can ‘tag’ a book, a weblink or a picture the way want. It’ss grassroots classification. Suppose the picture of the football is part of an online image library. If enough people tag the picture I mentioned earlier with the word ‘sport’ then someone doing an image search with the word ‘sport’, he or she will quickly get the football picture. And someone searching for pictures related to ‘leather’, ‘grass’ and ‘boring’ will also get the picture eventually.

Folksonomy finds its practical application on the web in the so called ‘tagging’ phenomena. Pioneering sites like Flickr (Flickr.com) for photos and del.icio.us for links are two leading examples of sites that use tags heavily. You can tag any picture on Flickr the way you want and you can explore these sites using so called tag clouds (see picture). The more popular a tag is the bigger it gets displayed in the tag cloud, reflecting the community’s current preoccupation with a certain matter.

Folksonomy is an aspect the emerging trend of social software, which is enabling the evolution of the web from a global library to a global, ongoing, fluid conversation between individuals.


One Response to “Folksonomy: classify the world the way you want”

  1. Basem Says:

    My first trip to Wikepida was as late as three weeks ago (after the GPS article), same goes to Flickr & del.icio.us… so I am rather fresh with this phenomena:

    However, the first impression over this trend of “folkosonmy” with the loose exception of Wikepida is that it is chaotic in essence and is at best 20% useful (against 80% long-term hip & useless)!

    Further, credibility, consistency, authenticity and accuracy are big issues with any person with scrutinizing tendencies or with the serious academic researchers!

    Things as simple as differing syntax entries for the same term(s) and the mere various conceptualizing of categorizing creates piles of unnecessary information and double that with unlimited number of possible paths to the info itself.

    On the other hand, I found it easy to search obvious tags such as “amman” at Flickr and the results where 90% accurate, compared to an image search at Google, where the result on “Jordan” for instance is rather obscene. So there is surely some benefit in “tagging” stuff in definite categories for an optimized search.

    Yet without a certain degree of direction by “some” governing or regulatory body, the diversity of people is bound to demolish any sound & credible basis for such notion of a Borg-like pond of collective knowledge.

    For instance : at del.icio.us you’ll find among the top popular tags “Blog” and “Blogs”, obvoiusly if a “governing” body chooses to conjugate the two under “Blog” nobody will object except for the odd letter “S” or plural fanatics, and it will definitely would not have any degree on the people’s well or alter the purpose of the “tag” (see screen-cap here : http://static.flickr.com/25/56239366_b00f3c270d.jpg?v=0)

    Even Wikipedia itself have issues, check out this article from The Register an alternative news & articles website:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/

    One of the co-founders seems to reiterate that management needs to “improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise.”

    Another article sporting the similar view : http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/30/142458/25

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