The Folksonomic Zeitgeist

The hot new word in online culture is “folksonomy” — a pretty brutal word for a very cool concept. A “folksonomy”, in essence, is a taxonomy done by the masses. Normally, taxonomies are composed by experts, as when a librarian enters a book into a catalogue and picks the keywords that most germanely identify the book. Technologies like Flickr or, in contrast, are situations in which anyone can enter something into the common pool —photos, in the case of Flickr, or hotlinks in the case of — and pick their own “tag”, their own keyword, to describe it.

Initially, this concept horrified info-mavens, because they figured that people would be too sloppy: People would use a stupid or irrelevant tag to describe a photo, and it would be thus pretty much unfindable; or they’d use an overly-broad word to describe a specific picture. As it turns out, folksonomies work pretty well. People tend to pick a bunch of not-too-broad but not-too-narrow tags to use, and they stick to ‘em. Sure, it’s not as precise as expert librarian tagging. But as Clay Shirky has pointed out, folksonomies are — on a volunteer basis — doing a terrific job of something that would be otherwise impossible to do: To pay experts to go around the Net tagging up photos and collections of links to make them searchable. If you want a snapshot of folksonomies in action, Flickr offers a page you can visit that shows the tags people are currently using — with the words getting bigger the more popular the tag.

Now The Guardian has done the same thing with its blogs — and created a “Folksonomic Zeitgeist”. As they describe on their site:

The writer adds keywords to each post to more finely describe the subject matter. These are called ‘tags’. The folksonomic zeitgeist shows the tags that have been used over the past seven days, sized in relation to the amount they have been used. This way you can see the subjects that have been on our mind the most over the past week.

When I looked at the page, I expected to see a few words — “election”, “tories,” “labour” — to dominate the entire page, reflecting the typical pack-journalism feel of the media, where a few subjects are blown out of proportion on a rolling basis. But it appears things are more democratic at The Guardian: The words are pretty uniform in size, and the big ones aren’t enormously bigger than the others.

I wonder: Does the editorial control of The Guardian — the fact that people are paid to ponder relatively diverse topics — acts as a hedge against the normal pull of popularity online? Normally, popularity online follows a power law, with a small number of items/blogs/sites dominating most of the traffic. But power laws exist in a state of near-perfect competition, where everyone “votes” on what they think is interesting, and each vote influences the next voter, creating the winner-take-all effect. In a newspaper, it’s more like a Soviet economy — centrally planned. The editors force their writers to sprawl out evenly over the world’s many topics; they’re not allowed to monomaniacally obsess over Brad and Jennifer.

Maybe this is the real difference between the appeal of folksonomies and taxonomies: It’s the difference between the relative advantages of open and planned economies.

(Thanks to Morgan for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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