Wikipedia's Word on Folksonomy

Posted by: Rob Hof on July 14, 2005

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Steve Rubel notes that there’s a debate at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia about a new listing for the word folksonomy, which it defines as “a neologism for a practice of collaborative categorization using freely chosen keywords.” It appears that debate is rather one-sided, with nearly all commenters voting for inclusion.

The most interesting thing about the fuss is how much it reveals about why Wikipedia is becoming so popular. Dig down into why there’s a debate, and you see the care with which Wikipedia and its community have set up policies to ensure entries are useful and accurate. Visitors can suggest a deletion, and vote yea or nay on that suggestion. There’s a detailed deletion policy, including suggestions for alternatives to deletion. And much more.

As even some former Wikipedians have written, Wikipedia is far from perfect (though as Clay Shirky has noted, comparisons to standard encyclopedias may be beside the point). But the care illustrated in this one debate seems to defy the easy criticisms of what’s becoming the de facto online reference source.

UPDATE: On the other hand, Thomas Vander Wal’s post (in Comments) indicate that other criticisms are quite valid. Vander Wal, who coined the term folksonomy, tells of his efforts to correct what he—with clear authority—considers a flawed definition, only to see it changed back. The debate over community vs. authority on Wikipedia, it seems, is far from over.

Reader Comments

vanderwal

July 15, 2005 11:39 AM

Thank you for the heads up on this. As the person who has coined the term folksonomy, I have been finding Wikipedia disappointing as the definition there has often been wrong (I have tried to correct it, only to have to changed back to the incorrect definition hours later). In whole the Wikipedia entry has been decent and I have found some interesting components around the term and idea that the word is meant to describe.

The term folksonomy was coined to describe an odd trend in tagging. Tagging is far from new, but it had rarely been useful as it was often muddled by people tagging with terms they thought others used. Del.icio.us and then Flickr seemed to have tipped the balance and the term folksonomy was coined to provide an anchor in the conversation (on the Institute for Information Architecture's listserve) around what was different.

Simply, folksonomy describes people free-tagging objects (URL bookmarks, media objects) that are addressable on the internet and the tagging is done for themselves, but is shared out to a collaborative community. The tagging for oneself is the biggest differentiator, as it provide a layer of honest, integrity, and reality into the mix. While del.icio.us, Flickr, CiteULike, etc. are tools that generate folksonmies, things like Technorati Tags are not. Technorati Tags are quite helpful, but they also fall into the problems associated with past tagging attempts that have people tagging for what they think others will call things.

Folksonomy also ties directly into the Web2.0 realm as it makes the web more useful by putting the person at the center of the interaction. There is such a flood of information on the web, and while finding information has improved in past years, refinding that information is often still an utter pain. Tools that help people organize the information and objects on the web to make it work better for themselves, while sharing it out so others may also benefit, is an essential tool for moving forward. As we move toward understanding the Personal InfoCloud and building a web that makes that easier to manage, we extend the usefulness of the web beyond what it is today.

Scott Burton

July 15, 2005 7:01 PM

I think having a formal organization scheme is good for such a site as Wikipedia where people go to for reference. However there are many other instances where something like that stifles the creation process. Bookmarking is an example of that. I want it to take less than 5 seconds to create a bookmark; doing a formal classification would bog that process down, making it easier for me to stop doing it. Or, maybe I am just lazy.

Ben Yates

July 21, 2005 10:02 PM

With respect to Vander Wal, you can't control subsequent use of a word just because you came up with it. Definitions are fluid -- language is a communication medium, not a set of rules, and the important thing is that the Wikipedia article reflect common usage.

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