The Obligatory Folksonomy Post

Commenting on a recent post, Beth Harris asks the question of how the tagging system in Flickr could be used for teaching purposes. (Beth, a fellow SUNY-ite working at FIT, is doing some cool stuff with her art history classes using Flickr.) After thinking about it for a bit, I’m afraid the answer I come up with is “Not much; at least, not in its current form.”

Given the huge buzz about folksonomies now, (which I have previously called distributed categorization), this is a disappointing discovery.

What gives?

Here’s my own take it:The problem with any sort of categorization scheme, whether it is generated through a top-down or a bottom-up process, is that there’s no such thing as a universally useful scheme. We have a proliferation of metadata schemas in the top-down world (e.g., Dublin Core) because different schemas serve different purposes. It is therefore silly to expect that some magically emergent category system will spring forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead, just because you’re enabling a bottom-up process.

Broadly participatory systems like Flickr and (and now Technorati) are going to be used for such diverse purposes that you’ll get a least-common-denominator system that is useful to nobody. This is not to say that you won’t occasionally get a tagging convergence that is interesting or even useful; but these will tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. For the most part, folksonomies that are built up with such a broad audience for such diverse purposes are likely to be fun toys and not much more.

To get around this problem, some people are experimenting with creating specialized tag sets with a prefix. For example, art history professors and students using Flickr for class purposes could prefix all of their tags with “arthistory:”, e.g., “arthistory:flemish”. Using this system, Beth and her students could draw on only those tags that are being used for similar purposes to their own. In Geekspeak, they are hacking an ad-hoc namespace. Within this smaller world of tags, the students might have some hope of discovering, say, images of Flemish art that is contemporary to Merode’s.

Two additional thoughts:

First, this strategy runs counter to the pervasive meme that all problems can be solved by harnessing network effects and growing some emergent…thingamabob. The thing about emergence is that it depends on the individual agents to be following a set of simple rules that effectively send ripples through the mob. But with wide-open folksonomies, individual participants may be using very different rule sets, depending on their individual aims. There’s no particular reason to believe that folksonomies, in and of themselves, create the necessary preconditions for emergent order.

Second, I wonder if we’re missing a useful property of folksonomies because of the way that they’re being implemented. The emphasis right now is on discoverability of resources, i.e., using these tags to find stuff related to the stuff you’re interested in but that you didn’t previously know was out there. That makes sense, since (a) discoverability of resources is one of the great challenges of the Internet, and (b) since these tags are being used as categories for bookmarks, it is only natural to think of them in terms of organizing resources to make them more discoverable (or re-discoverable, if they are your own bookmarks).

But we may ultimately be able to mine more interesting stuff by looking in the opposite direction. Rather than checking to see what other resources share the same tag, how about looking at what other tags are attached to the resource? Tags, being metadata, tell us something about the context in which the tagger is placing the resource. So, going back to our art history example (but this time for research rather than teaching), it might be interesting to see how different historians are tagging the same images. We could learn something about how our colleagues contextualize individual artifacts for themselves.

Most interestingly, in this particular context it is precisely the mismatch of tags that yields the most knowledge. In any field of inquiry, the edge cases are where some of the most interesting work gets done. Is the painting late Impressionist or early Expressionist? (This may be a lousy example, since I am not an art historian.) This is a somewhat similar philosophy about the role of metadata to the one being taking by the APOLLO Learning Object Repository project, i.e., the object itself is at the center with various metadata bits tacked on extensibly. By putting the “meta” before the “data,” maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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16 Responses to The Obligatory Folksonomy Post

  1. Sabine Kirstein says:

    Michael, I’ve been wondering when you were going to weigh in on this topic — it just seemed like a conversation to which you’d be able to add insight.

    I like your idea of looking at the other tags attached to the resource. In a way, I do something similar with Furl ( With Furl, you can see who Furled something you Furled, go to their archives, if public, and see in what caterory or categories they filed the same article.

    But for me, the most interesting part is the “people who furled this also furled….” That’s when my horizons really start to stretch.

  2. That’s an interesting point, Sabine. In effect, the person’s identity acts as a tag.

  3. Pingback: Folksonomies: How we can improve the tags

  4. Sabine Kirstein says:

    I never thought of it that way, but that’s true! I guess I could say that what interests me are:
    – what tags other people use for that which I tag,
    – what other people who tag what I tag also find tag-worthy,
    – what people I pay attention to (my pals, plus –call them what you will — mavens, connectors, powerful sneezers,) find tag-worthy.

    In the last two, identity acts as a tag, either identity as defined by congruent interests, or by actual identity.

  5. Beth Harris says:

    Michael, I have also been thinking about the issue of folksonomies and tags and how they might be useful in the classroom.

    It seems to me that the tags/folksonomy only become interesting when the community is large enough to allow fortuitous connections to be made, and this would not be true in a class of 19 students.

    After all, as you pointed out (although in a different context), it is the mismatch of the tags that is most interesting — the strange coming together of the unexpected. In an article on learning theories in the digital age, George Siemens writes about how “Weak ties are links or bridges that allow short connections between information. Our small world networks are generally populated with people whose interests and knowledge are similar to ours. Finding a new job, as an example, often occurs through weak ties. This principle has great merit in the notion of serendipity, innovation, and creativity. Connections between disparate ideas and fields can create new innovations.” And he emphasizes the coincidental, “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.”

    (As an aside, all of this reminds me of the popularity of the Shuffle feature on the ipod and the coming undone of the record album with its sense of ordering and closure).

    PS I’ll have another look at Apollo

  6. You’re right, Beth. A class of 19 students is too small. But the world of all users of Flickr for all possible purposes is too large–or, more to the point, too diverse. The collection of users that I think would be useful in our circumstance is, for example, the set of all students of Art History on Flickr. Large numbers of people with similar goals. Otherwise, the folksonomy represented by the constellation of tags gets too diluted.

  7. Beth Harris says:

    I posted this comment earlier, but I think it got lost, so here goes again…

    I’m not sure I agree that a good collection of users would be art history students (in Flickr, for example). I like the idea of the cross-disciplinary and inside/outside academy connections that could be made. So, how would one create a useful community??

    Anyway, too many art historians gives me the heebie-jeebies, always has.

  8. Beth Harris says:

    Oh, my other point was that what is fun about Flickr is that it is like a video game that allows for it’s “relatively freeform interaction.” Not a lot of fun if the only players are art historians…

  9. Sorry, my language wasn’t clear. What I meant by “students of art history” was not people taking a class in the history of art but rather the broader category of people who have an interest in the kind of art that hangs in museums. Art afficionados. Imagine if there were a subsection of Flickr called ArtFlickr. Anyone could post anything they want in it, but people are discouraged from posting, say, their family vacation pictures. That way, when you looked at all the entries for the “France” tag, you may get French Impressionist art, pictures of pyramid at the Louvre, and pictures of French cave art, but not pictures of Hank and Selma at Euro Disney.

    Tag prefixes such as “art:” could accomplish the same thing as ArtFlickr, with the added benefit that you could add an “ignore prefixes” check box on the tag search function, so if you really wanted to see everything that anybody tags with “France”, you still can.

    To get an idea of how this might work, try browsing around gallery and imagine adding folksonomy tags to it. (The gallery could be considered a rough analog to ArtFlickr for photographers.)

  10. Eric Feinblatt says:

    I think there’s a way to tame the intrinsic unwieldiness of folsksonomies, and make them valuable to learning environments without loosing the serendipity that we are all sensitive to.
    If you drill down one level further than Michael’s “arthistory” tag and use, instead, a tag like “ha112_105” – which identifies a specific class – then you can begin to accumulate all of the references that teacher and students pull together that might pertain to the particular course of study. Technorati would pick up the ha112_105 blog posts as well as the flickr images and all of the furl and links that the class find useful. 19 students who explore the web’s resources can come up with an enormous amount of “conventional” and “idiosyncratic” material stitched together with the “ha112_105 tag” to build a collective class web reference “database.”

  11. What I like about tag prefixes (e.g., class:ha112_1205 or community:artlovers) is that it gives you a full-fledged faceted classification system. You don’t get this by adding more flat tags (e.g., ha112_105) to the tag soup. To get an idea of how powerful a faceted classification system can be, check out this Wikipedia entry on the colon classification system.

  12. eric feinblatt says:

    I think I get it . . . by adding the colon you separate the “class” classification from the “community” classification. Is that right? Seems like an excellent idea.

  13. Beth Harris says:

    I’m still trying to sort all this out.

    In Eric’s method, you accumulate references found by the student that pertain to a specific course or even content area of a course. This is similar to the “External Links” section of a Bb course (but the students can’t contribute — Is there a group page that you could do this with in Bb I wonder?). It is also similar to the “Shared References” area of the SLN template (which can’t be divided into folders or content areas (as in Bb), but which students CAN contribute to).

    So, how is this method (tagging with class: ha112) different or better? Something about it feels more interesting, but I can’t put my finger on what it is…

  14. OK, suppose you have a tag labeled “donatello.” You want to see what serendipity will bring you, so you look to see what other images have the “donatello” tag on them. You get back a bunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. Not very interesting. So you add the separate “art” tag to your search. Maybe now you get cartoons of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles painting or, alternatively, a velvet painting of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

    However, suppose you have a tag that specifies that what you mean by “donatello” is the name of an artist and not the name of a cartoon character, e.g., “artist:donatello.” Now you get some of his obscure works, some portraits of him, articles about him, etc. In this case, the serendipity is interesting. On the other hand, if you actually were looking for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuff, you could use the “cartoon:donatello” tag. By using the pair, identical tags (e.g., “donatello”) can be separated for different purposes (e.g., people bookmarking information about art and people bookmarking information about cartoons).

    Naturally, it only works if people agree to use the same first half of the tag to specify the category, which requires some organization and consensus (as opposed to just using the straight “donatello” tag, which requires no coordination at all to get the serendipity thing to happen). But there are ways to deal with this.

  15. Eric Feinblatt says:

    “But there are ways to deal with this” . . . . hummmm, what ways? Seems like we’re back in the hands of the dublin core folks. We need to find a mechanism that “blends” (what an operative word nowadays) the top down tags with the bottom up ones. Actually, it may not be “blend” at all – we just need to be able to operate on that thin line in the middle at which the two converge. I know that the semantic web has received a lot of bashing recently, but wasn’t it conceived with this idea in mind?

    Regarding Beth’s comments about Blackboard, SLN, and “shared references,” I think her instincts are correct: the LMSs don’t feel quite right. This is because they have not been designed with collaborative activity at their core. was created with public sharing at center stage. It’s not a question of “can it accomodate external references or shared links” – it’s more a question of “how do we use its native capabilites productively in an academic environment.” Even though we may ask our students to use the tag “class:ha112_105,” the resultant agglomeration of links feels more collaborative and less orchestrated because it is occurs outside of the behemoth of the “system.” At least it does to me. Now, the question really is, will our students fall for it? Afterall, it’s just another assignment.

  16. You wouldn’t need to resort to controlled vocabularies like Dublin Core in order to make this work. You’d just need to take tag discovery tools up a level to tag category discovery. People could see, for example, that there’s an art category prefix (e.g, art:whatever) just as they can see the list of tags themselves on now.

    There are other tools people could develop to help the community with this, however. One would be a sort of taxonomy import/export/sharing tool that lets you share classification schemes the way OPML lets you share RSS subscription lists. FXML (or “faceted XML”) would be a good candidate language for this sort of thing. (By the way, Drupal apparently already has an FXML export module.)

    Another good idea would be a tool that lets you compare tags (or categories) to see how much they overlap. I recently posted about this idea.

    Anyway, the main goal is to give people a way to share not just tags but domains of usage for the tags. Self-discovery works on this level as well as on the existing level.

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