UKOLN AHDS An Introduction To Folksonomies

What is a Folksonomy?

A folksonomy is a decentralised, social approach to creating metadata for digital resources. It is usually created by a group of individuals, typically the resource users, who add natural language tags to online items, such as images, videos, bookmarks and text. These tags are then shared and sometimes refined. Folksonomies can be divided into broad folksonomies, when lots of users tag one object, and narrow folksonomies, when a small number of users tag individual items. This new social approach to creating online metadata has sparked much discussion in the cataloguing world.

Note that despite its name a folksonomy is not a taxonomy. A taxonomy is the process, within subject-based classification, of arranging the terms given in a controlled vocabulary into a hierarchy. Folksonomies move away from the hierarchical approach to an approach more akin to that taken by faceted classification or other flat systems.

The History of Folksonomies

With the rise of the Internet and increased use of digital networks it has become easier to both work in an informal and adhoc manner, and as part of a community. In the late 1990s Weblogs (or blogs), a Web application similar to an online diary, became popular and user centred metadata was first created. In late 2003 delicious, an online bookmark manager, went live. The ability to add tags using a non-hierarchical keyword categorisation system was appended in early 2004.Tagging was quickly replicated by other social software and in late 2004 the Folksonomy name, a portmanteau of folk and taxonomy, was coined by Thomas Vander Wal.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Folksonomies

Robin Good is quoted as saying that "a folksonomy represents simultaneously some of the best and worst in the organization of information." There is clearly a lot to be learnt from this new method of classification as long as you remain aware of the strengths and weaknesses.


Folksonomies at this point in time are more about browsing than finding and a great deal of useful information can be found in this way.
Cheap and extendable
Folksonomies are created by users. This makes them relatively cheap and highly scalable, unlike more formal methods of adding metadata. Often users find that it is not a case of 'folksonomy or professional classification' but 'folksonomy or nothing'.
The key to folksonomies success is community and feedback. The metadata creation process is quick and responsive to user needs, new words can become well used in days. If studied they can allow more formal classification systems to emerge and demonstrate clear desire lines (the paths users will want to follow).


Imprecision of terms
Folksonomy terms are added by users which means that they can be ambiguous, overly personalised and imprecise. Some sites only allow single word metadata resulting in many compound terms, many tags are single use and at present there is little or no synonym control.
The uncontrolled set of terms created can mean that folksonomies may not support searching as well as services using controlled vocabularies.

The Future for Folksonomies

Over time users of the Internet have come to realise that old methods of categorisation do not sit comfortably in a digital space, where physical constraints no longer apply and there is a huge amount to be organised. Search services like Yahoo's directory, where items are divided into a hierarchy, often seem unwieldy and users appear happier with the Google search box approach. With the rise of communities on the Web there has also come about a feeling that meaning comes best from our common view of the world, rather than a professional's view.

While there is no doubt that the professional cataloguing will continues to have a place, both off the Internet and on, there has been recent acceptance that new ways of adding metadata, such as folksonomies, need more exploration, alongside other areas like the semantic Web. The two models of categorisation (formal and informal) are not mutually exclusive and further investigation could only help us improve the way we organise and search for information. If nothing else folksonomies have achieved the once believed unachievable task of getting people to talk about metadata!

Further Information

The following additional resources may be useful:

Bookmark Sites

Images, Video and Sound