A week ago I had the happy experience of going to a local pub with three graduate students in the iSchool – Michael Braly, Jason Parker, and Geoff Froh. I am in their debt for the good times and stimulating conversations we enjoyed! In addition to learning about session beers, sharing notes about travel, cameras and careers, they shared with me some of their enthusiasms from their classes, and folksonomies emerged as a prominent topic.
The term folksonomy is one of those linguistic constructs that suggests its own definition. When I first heard the term, I wondered what would happen if you hybridized a folksonomy and a formal taxonomy (I can’t imagine that I was the first to have this thought, and I wouldn't claim it as my own), but also imagined that the result might be too diffuse to be of much use.
Michael, Geoff, and Jason pointed me to the del.icio.us site for their class on Web 2.0 trends. [aside: is this a great way to share ideas in a class, or what?] Most germane to folksonomies is the Golder and Huberman article, The Structure of Collaborative Tagging Systems, in which the authors cite evidence that the proportion of tags assigned to a given resource stabilizes after about 100 tags. If this result generalizes, then the notion of hybridizing a folksonomy and a traditional taxonomy might be both tractable and useful.
A formal taxonomy provides an established hierarchy, but suffers from rigidity (arguably both a feature and a bug). Collaborative tagging affords an electronic warrant of sorts, bringing to the fore new terms and relationships that will be absent from a static taxonomy.
Whether additional value emerges from this hybridization is unclear and would benefit from actual experimentation (insert hand-waving here). The technical challenges of automatically linking these clouds to the taxonomy are also uncertain (we do agree that, in the words of Erik Duval, librarians don’t scale, don’t we?).
The top level syllogism goes something like:
- There is value in formal knowledge hierarchies that have emerged over time and which are established frameworks for existing knowledge organization
- There is value in the ad hoc semantic clouds of collaborative tagging and linking
- The hybridization of these values should be complementary
Is anyone doing the experiment?
Image: The Rotunda ceiling of the National Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Photo by the author, February 26, 2006