Tags, Folksonomies & Metadata

What’s in a name, Juliet once exclaimed from her balcony. In the evolving mediascape, that which we call a rose has become a tag — a naming convention that makes content more accessible while simultaneously building online communities. These tags are a form of metadata — capsule descriptions of larger data sets. Increasingly such metadata are being created by online volunteers, giving rise to the concept of the folksonomy. I should not feign expertise on these topics given that I only noted the term “folksonomy” in a recent edition of Paid Content. The word intrigued me and I decided to learn more. Here’s what I found. Wired News quoted Thomas Vander Wal, the information architect who coined the term “folksonomy.” He described the phenomenon as “people tagging information so that they can come back to it themselves or so that others with the same vocabulary can find it.” Salon has a primer on the use of tagging, which evolved from sites like del.icio.us — which created a convention and community for sharing bookmarks — and flickr — which allows users to tag photos with descriptive words like cat or dog. A scholarly paper by library scientist Adam Mathes describes some of the strengths and weaknesses of folksonomies. The strengths, particularly in the photo context, are obvious if you’re looking for cat rather than dog photos. The weaknesses include the fact that, so far at least, tags are single words that do not distinguish singular from plural nor recognize synonyms. So “rose” would not lead to “roses,” nor would “Mac” yield “Macintosh.” And if you say “Palestine” and I say “WestBank” we have a meta-disconnect. Tags are nevertheless one of those useful and magical tools that arise from the ability to knit together communities in which a little effort from many hands can lift heavy loads. I stand in awe of such wikipedian efforts. However, my blog is supposed to explore new media business models and viewed in that lens I see folksonomies as a community-building tools with a dual payoff. Allowing people to enhance the value of a shared database creates a sense of ownership among those who contribute. It’s like joining a cool and useful club. New initiates probably love to show friends what they’ve learned. Folksonomies thus extend the outward reach of the community while building the inward depth of the underlying data — which seems very businesslike to me.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media