Some uses for folksonomies: musings on user-created structures

The presence of folksonomies defines much of the modern web. The term is derived from taxonomy, which defines an official means of cataloging objects or creatures or nouns of some kind. Folksonomies differ in that they are user-defined. Specifically, they help users of web and related technologies organize and find information more readily, based on categories that make the most sense to them. Since no one lives in a complete social bubble, these user-created definitions are likely to be applicable to other users who are related by profession, hobby, or genetics (i.e., family members).

Folksonomies result from social bookmarking (as just one source). Social bookmarking sites (e.g., allow web users to bookmark a site online rather than within their browsers and then tag each of these sites with appropriate terms. A search within for St. John Fisher leads to tags like St_John_Fisher_College, Lavery_Library, New York State, sports, and journey. By engaging in these searches, users of the site can find other users with matching interests and relevant sites that match their objectives.

But despite the many uses of social bookmarking sites, I’ve yet to meet an actual user. In the times I spoke about social bookmarking at faculty development events (while I was Blackboard Info-Course director), I usually met stiff resistance. Blackboard even offered its own social bookmarking tool—which is now gone. ‘Nuff said.

What went wrong? I believe there’s a limit to how many social media sites most people want to use, but sharing and folksonomies endure within more popular sites.

Twitter and Facebook‘s major functions are to repost information and links. Facebook doesn’t provide folksonomy tools to organize this data, so to find something, you have to remember who posted it and then scan their feed. However, Twitter offers hashtags. A word preceded by a hashtag (#) binds topics of similar interest. You can search for tags on twitter or other sites and see what’s being discussed about a topic. This can be used to get a feel for opinions on current events—social media managers use it to monitor online discussion about a brand. Take a look at what people are saying about and at Fisher. (When I wrote this, the stream primarily consisted of happy high school seniors.)

Hashtags frequently are used at academic conferences as backchannels to follow what attendees are experiencing at multiple sessions. Professors use it in the classroom as a means to have a second conversation or Q&A during a lecture. I’ve tried this as an experiment and am usually left with the sense that it works better when it’s actually needed: in large 200+ student lectures where one can’t ask questions and when a teaching assistant is monitoring the channel. At Fisher, it seems superfluous for most classes.

One does sometimes see hashtags on Facebook, but there’s no practical reason for it. They appear either because a user has linked his Facebook and Twitter accounts, or because it’s just a convenient way to summarize an experience. “Dropped all my lecture notes in front of the class #epicfail”.

Pinterest is different—a collection of images according to theme-based boards which provides a visual folksonomy. Pinterest is somewhat unique in its approach, although I doubt it remains so (see for one text-based up-and-coming competitor). But the site does have uses in education.

So, outside of popular social media sites, how might professors use folksonomies? If considering the concept in its broadest sense: how one organizes information for the convenience of users (students), three suggestions come to mind:

1) Keywords. I imagine many of you have submitted articles to journals and been asked to submit 5-7 keywords. That’s an example of folksonomy. You’re stating how you want your own article to be categorized in databases—with the assumption that other scholars use the same terms that you do. Similarly, I’ve asked students to write keywords for their papers: certainly for the final draft, and sometimes earlier as well. It should be an easy task: write five words that encompass the main ideas of a paper. And it’s easy for most. But, if a student does have difficultly, then this leads to a conversation; early in the writing process, a researcher at any level should be able to define one’s paper in such terms.

2) Word Clouds. While word clouds aren’t based on text themes, but rather simply word count, using a word cloud folksonomy postcreator like can give some insight into the topics of a paper and allow students to reflect on the topics/words used in a paper. If nothing else, it may help a student become aware of an overuse of certain words or phrases. To the right is a word cloud for this article.

3) Amazon lists. I recently had a motivated student ask me for a list of books I recommended that covered advanced topics in web design. is a for-profit business, but it offers tools that can be of use in education. I created and shared a list of recommended books to the student. Now I have the list readily at hand if others ask for something similar, without having to sort through e-mail or my own files. Yes, Amazon wants me to do this since the receiver of the list will be strongly tempted to purchase the books through Amazon. That doesn’t make it any less of a convenience and no one is obliged to buy the books through Amazon. For one example, here’s a list of some of my favorite books about digital media.

Regardless of how one accesses or uses folksonomies, web technologies give us ability to organize according to user/student needs and such organization can make information retrieval more convenient.  More significantly, it can also help students consider their writing and research from a different perspective.

(And yes, the tags immediately below are an example of a folksonomy.)

9 responses to “Some uses for folksonomies: musings on user-created structures

  1. I have a bunch of thoughts to add, being a long-time (and now basically dormant) user of delicious, among other social bookmarking tools. User-driven categorization is fascinating to consider from an information organization POV — the Shirky “Here comes everybody” concept, getting a billion minds to organize the world’s information — but the data cleanup and *retrieval* components are where they become impossible to manage fast. Twitter’s “hashtag” method of standardizing and popularizing folksonomy’s form has evolved the concept forward a bit from the early days of, though.

    In library/information science jargon, there’s been a concept of a “controlled vocabulary,” which in more contemporary use has been characterized as a taxonomy — if a controlled vocabulary is implemented in a full semantic structure, it becomes is called an ontology. These systems are highly UNLIKE the folksonomy in that they’re highly controlled, but I’ve been interested for years in how the structured and the unstructured can be overlaid in a systematic way.

    The big problem with folksonomies is the motivational element — if you’re organizing things for your own retrieval, does this translate effectively to how others would attempt to access it? A whole bunch of literature is out there on the motivational elements of tagging and how that impacts the resources thus tagged, which I’ll need to dig up. Keyword indexing, search and retrieval systems continue to get better and better with the years, leaving folksonomies in the dust, which is a likely cause for the waning of social bookmarking’s reach, particularly where Delicious is concerned…but I think there may still be a space for it, particularly in the area of discipline-specific communications.

    I think the folksonomy field may have simply shifted in its scope. It’s not as much of a buzzword as it was in 2005-7, but tags have reached cultural relevance on a global scale following Twitter’s mass adoption. Tagging doesn’t just link blog posts — it may just drive revolutions.

  2. Thanks for this post and conversation. I am wondering how important tagging and bookmarking will be going forward as search engines like Google (and social sharing sites like Pinterest) are tempted to become more promotional toward corporate (and other) interests who pay to be listed or found. Should users generating this content be paid?

    Seems like “the crowd” that Shirky writes about is an awfully good audience to reach and as Wall Street pressures mount on Google over the years, will we really be sure that these results are not manipulated in some way? Take for example. The “free-mium” model is slowly giving way to custom sites and features for nominal fees each year. Eventually, revenue has to be generated by models that are profit-driven or these web spaces (like Wikipedia) start asking for donations.

    Is folksonomy something that will become a commodity? Is it already?

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