The Tao of Folksonomy

A recent posting reveals my efforts to understand how volunteers are using tags to categorize photos, blog posts, etcetera, a concept known as folksonomy. This week I attended a dinner where members of the tagnoscenti – including Tantek Celik and Mary Hodder -- discussed the system’s shortcomings, notably fake-tagging to drive traffic to sites, and the inevitable confusion that results when volunteers tag the same things in different ways.

I am obviously condensing a lengthy dialogue, much of which went over my head, but I do recall a suggestion that a reputation system might add clout to thoughtful taggers and reduce the noise. I’m not sure whether that was deemed unworkable or unwise because by that time everybody was antsy to go home and there was a lot of shuffling of chairs. Mary did mention she was discussing these issues with Marc Canter (of Ourmedia) in something called Open Topics which I briefly visited but bounced off as it is way too technical for me.

Afterwards, dinner host Jeff Ubois emailed his customary who-was-there, what-was-said, follow up, in which he included links to further the conversation. They directed me to a lengthy and illuminating essay in which Shelley Powers (aka Burningbird) reviewed much of the discussion about tags, their plusses, minuses and alternatives.

To make a long essay short, Burningbird seems to thinks that, when it comes to tags, we get what we pay for. In her own words: “I grant that tags (Technorati, Flickr, and others) and the other tools of folksonomies are better than having nothing at all; but is there a possibility that they are also worse than having nothing at all?” She softens the critique by adding: “I don’t want to denigrate Technorati’s efforts with this, because I feel in the end Technorati is going to play a major role in our semantic efforts. Still, no matter how many tricks you play with something like tags, you can only pull out as much ‘meaning’ as you put into them.”

The essay alludes to some alternatives or supplementary systems, which frankly require more thought power and technical insight than I can muster, perhaps ever and most certainly now when I have to get on with life.

But as the liberal arts guy eavesdropping on a technical discussion, it strikes me that generally speaking we do not deploy what might be called the best system for anything. For instance, how many people are learning Esperanto?

Instead we throw stuff out there. The stuff that gets momentum – whether good, bad or indifferent – becomes the main thrust. We then hasten to patch it up as it rolls along, and hope we fix it before it falls apart.

One more thought. My wife got me a can filled with inspiration sayings that come with peel-off backs. I stick a new one on my bathroom mirror each day (those says help prevent me from using the razor in a manner that might be harmful to myself). One of my thought du jour read: The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It was attributed to Lao Tzu. There seems to be a time honored tradition of just muddling along.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Blogger Bozo Faust said...

When Shelley says "Still, no matter how many tricks you play with something like tags, you can only pull out as much ‘meaning’ as you put into them” i will have to agree whith her, yet she is seeing the half of the glass that empty, not the half that is full. We put meaning into words in our natural language by the process of ostension and tagging is just the same thing on the Internet. I blogged about this a while ago.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So if I label or tag bozo faust as a turd or big brown turd that aggregates his meaning to something my dog likes to play with - is that what you have in mind ?

7:12 AM  
Blogger Andi Silver said...

I am with Clay Shirky on this, the rushing torrent is USAGE. Usage rules; academics and professional can comment, fret and publish but the wider population will determine what works.

Superior forms of storage and classification will be sorted out by the marketplace. Tags and folksonomies are more like language itself than like the dusty stacks.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Andi Silver said...

Bozo Faust's short blog (linked above in his comment) on the subject is quite good--if only he hadn't ruined it with a mention of semiotics.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Bozo Faust said...

Thanks, Andi Silver, for your positive comment. I don't take semiotics too seriously ... really all there is to it for me is this semiotic triangel and the idea that symbol is associated to object by a social process. That simple idea cuts out ages of confusion in the philosophy of language.

Incidentally how do i get my store on on Andilinks ?

3:16 PM  
Blogger MiniMediaGuy said...

Thanks for the additiomal thoughts. I continue to wonder if there is a way to blend folksonomy with some form of supervision -- some set of superfolks who would scan the tag universe and make recommendations to harmonize them. But I don't understand the technical challenges of what I propose, even if such oversight were acceptable to volunteer communities.

7:40 AM  
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5:39 PM  
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6:45 PM  

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