Faceted Folksonomies or Web 2.2
Anyone who has tagged an image on Flickr or described a bookmark they saved to their Del.icio.us account has participated in a phenomenon known as a folksonomy. In simple terms, a folksonomy is a non-hierarchical collection of terms used to describe something. The terms are created by the users who are accessing the items and are often personalized for each particular occurrence. Because the terms are not structured there can be many similar terms describing an item. To many this diversity of language allows for a greater chance for social inspiration as shared terms can often lead to serendipitous discovery. The democratic pseudo-taxonomies which are created can often suit the rudimentary needs of users browsing through topics. The freedom that is created has its benefits but it also has its limitations.
Those in the library side of things realize the importance of a controlled vocabulary and as well the concept of a hierarchical taxonomy. Whereas you may find that a folksonomy will grant you a large amount of recall, a structured taxonomy will warrant a larger instance of precision. In a way the use of a controlled vocabulary is a bit like giving people a coloring book and the same three crayons. You may find that some will only use a few of the crayons or perhaps blend them in a certain way but you are still working with approximately the same colors. Once a folksonomy system is introduced the users are free to fill in the space with crayons of any color, pens, pencils, spaghetti sauce, a shoe, or perhaps even another coloring book. One exceptional paper by Emanuele Quitarelli entitled “Folksonomies: Power to the People” may help to describe folksonomies even further.
In an interesting article on the Library Thing blog, the author (TIM) points out that users will more frequently tag things that are considered “their stuff” rather than someone else’s. The article then compares the amounts of tagging for Amazon.com and LibraryThing.com. Not unexpectedly, the LibraryThing.com level of tagging was significantly higher than its comparison. Again it seems that when users are creating a collected list of the books in their own library, they are exponentially more likely to spend time describing the item for others. We must also remember that LibraryThing.com is not a commercial site, but rather a social networking tool, and shouldn’t be exclusively compared to a primarily commercial tool such as Amazon.com
An interesting concept brought forth from this piece was the value of “opinion tags.” Opinion tags are terms which describe the item or item’s worth in a less than objective manner. For instance, a user who has read The God Delusion could objectively tag the book with something like “Theology” or “Philosophy of Religion”, but if they didn’t care for what they had read the terms may look something more like “Perfect Table Leg Replacement” or “Utter Tripe.” Whereas this type of tagging may make us chuckle a bit, it doesn’t necessarily expand our understanding of the title. The creation of such vague descriptor terms can often create descriptors which are more like filler than information. You can easily say that you think the item is “good”, but can you intellectually tell the world what was good and why?
So where can libraries, or librarians, fit into this Web 2.0 wonderland of anarchistic denominations. Those outside of libraries have already ventured into making suggestions about implementing rudimentary controls upon the world of folksonomies. Seth Earley, in his blog Not Otherwise Categorized, proposed the concept of a hybrid system. In his method, new terms would be vetted by review much in the same way articles are validated in Wikipedia. This may work in a proprietary environment but in the larger scheme of tagging this may prove too inconsistent and time consuming to be a real solution. Even within a library catalog, a system like this would tax the librarians’ ability to manage and utilize the user feedback that has been collected.
My thoughts then drifted to another avenue of exploration. As we are often concerned with the “meta” would a system which created tag hierarchies find any substance in the folksonomic realm. As a user I know that I have tagged things which flow together in a natural manner. I can see how often I have used each tag via a “tag cloud” but are any of the terms related in any logical manner. Through the creation of something like a tag hub I could keep terms that I wanted to search in unison together conceptually. I could also branch separate terms into the hub without removing them from their related hubs. Through this clustering I can then browse upwards and downwards within a conceptual framework. Once terms are connected the hubs could then be shared with other users and within a networked system. Given the right design, a new user could enter into the system and browse through a multiplicity of terms through multiple concepts.
For now we will continue to soar through the tag clouds while leaving behind our mark upon the items we encounter. An interesting twist on tag clouds can be seen on the site Mefeeidia.com. The site allows you to see tags in a separated view of certain descriptive categories. The categories speak more to what type of term (event, people, place, or topic) rather than something more along the lines of a semantic relationship, but even that amount of division helps collect your thoughts.
Web 2.0 may give individuals the opportunity to have their voice count, but if we cannot listen to each other in an organized fashion, our sharing becomes more like territorial shouting. Those who have evalutated the concepts of Web 3.0 have focused on the machine offering the artificial intelligence edge to create a semantic web. Before that day arrives I wonder if those in library science might risk a venture into Web 2.2, in an effort to make sense of the cacophony of voices.
For more links on Folksonomies check out these sites: