Folksonomies: Losing the Reins?

'A Break, losing the Reins', 1830.

In all honesty, folksonomies make me somewhat uneasy. Theoretically, I believe that “folk taxonomies” are a democratic form of metadata, but, realistically, I wonder if folksonomies don’t represent library and information science professionals losing the reins of resource classification and organization to the detriment of people seeking information. While I consider folksonomies to be useful, I don’t think they should replace controlled vocabulary in the library environment. Perhaps a hybrid system is best to keep some oversight yet also allow for flexibility?

Despite my misgivings, I do appreciate folksonomies’ value to information seekers online. They are useful precisely as tags are generated by end-users rather than external authorities, and tags can be created by anyone to label their information content and selected for their relevancy to users. Since folksonomies are crowdsourced, hierarchical relationships don’t exist – no tag is more or less important than another. I think that folksonomies are helpful because they permit users to link items while at the same time they connect users to communities of people with shared interests. In that sense, then, folksonomies foster serendipity, allowing users to exploit one tag to discover an array of views – political, scientific, cultural, or historical – about a specific topic. Folksonomies are likewise up-to-date, echoing trends and social change. Also, folksonomies are cheap to establish, but can be an excellent return on investment if tags and the content which they represent become popular. Overall, the primary advantage of folksonomies is their inclusiveness.

On the other hand, folksonomies have a huge disadvantage: people tag items because they can find them with a certain tag, but that doesn’t mean that other people would associate the same tag with the same information resource! That lack of common context is unfortunately not the only drawback associated with folksonomies, which have no quality control. For example, what about synonyms and homonyms? Or typos and abbreviations? Not to mention different languages – Cape Town in English versus Kaapstad in Afrikaans, or Turin in English versus Torino in Italian. Also, some tags could express negative value judgments, such as #dumb or #ugly. Finally, spam tags usually have no relevancy to the resource to which they are applied and are meant to purposely misdirect users’ searches.

Nevertheless, I think that folksonomies have much future potential in libraries because people can relate to and understand social tags more easily than the LCSHs currently in OPACs. Indeed, if we as information professionals want to encourage people to use library resources, we need that human connection that folksonomies provide through tagging that is more meaningful to people of diverse backgrounds and cultures across society. Considering the question, I feel a hybrid classification system composed of traditional controlled vocabulary plus more progressive folksonomies is the solution.







6 thoughts on “Folksonomies: Losing the Reins?

  1. Catherine, To start, I LOVE the look of your blog. Your writing style is also refreshing and enjoyable. I really appreciate your thoughts on Folksonomies, particularly with usage/spelling/judgement value. All excellent points and certainly things that can cause cause for concern within a professional application. I also agree with your points about the human element and building connections. I often think of the library as one of the few entities that truly belongs to the people. I think that is one of the most brilliant aspects of libraries which allow for flexibility and adaptability based on need. Folksonomies to me is just another extension of those traits.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are so much more structured than I am, and I love it. I really do like your blog and your writing style, so that’s why I comment here so much.

    I agree – the folksonomies problem is an chaotic one. No rules, all based on people’s interpretations of what they see here on the big bad internet – and there is no way to really harness it in. I think since the explosion of our little cyber culture, information scientists have been visibility struggling with where to put what, how to organize it, who to call the leader in the Lord of the Flies thing we have going on.

    Because I do live a rather loosed-reins existence (meaning: I’m kinda flaky), as far as what I see being interpreted in front of me as “order” on the internet, I’m kind of ok with it because there is a kind of chaotic efficiency to it. I’m a very literary person, meaning I read books and get “this” out of it and expect to turn to my neighbor and hear that they got “that” out of it and somehow we make it work with this combination of push and pull, abstract-style.

    Does any of that make sense? Ha. I don’t know that it did. It made more sense in my brain, but getting it out in any semblance of eloquence…I don’t think that happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Or actually you should thank my high school English teacher who made me appreciate writing when I had to craft a defense for Frankenstein’s monster after reading the book for her class. 🙂 Your analysis is so astute! I’m amazed that the information science powers-that-be keep trying to impose structure on something so loose and organic as folksonomies. Lol! I’m not going to make any comment on you calling yourself flaky. However, I think that push-and-pull you describe is what makes folksonomies democratic, and differing interpretations are what we desperately need to inform civic discourse about important issues. You absolutely made sense! Like so many other areas where social media, the internet, information science, and libraries collide and overlap, folksonomies have to be viewed pragmatically rather than dogmatically.


  3. “I wonder if folksonomies don’t represent library and information science professionals losing the reins of resource classification and organization to the detriment of people seeking information”
    I can’t even come up with an appropriate response to this, honestly. I first read this post last night and, honestly, it kind of kept me awake thinking of it from that perspective. It brings me back around to the idea of how social media had been called dehumanizing. So, not only that…it might be killing our job functions. I’m going to cry myself to sleep now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, no! I didn’t mean to cause you to have dystopian dreams. On the other hand, sometimes I’m a little scared by how easily we cede to social media’s dehumanizing and derogatory side effects. It gives a whole new meaning to resisting anticipatory obedience and critically evaluating our own actions.

      Liked by 1 person

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