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Folksonomy as symbol

In about an hour, I am giving an informal, 20-minute opening talk at the University of North Carolina’s social software conference. I share the floor with Thomas Vander Wal (his blog), the information architect who coined the term “folksonomy,” and someone who knows far more about the topic than I do. So, I’m going to stay as general and meaningless as I can. Here’s what I’m thinking of saying:

Why do we care about folksonomies? They’re easy to minimize as either (a) Just another tool in the kit, and/or (b) A phenomenon that’s been around for a while (e.g., eBay users’ preference for “laptop” over “notebook,” or language itself). But they’re genuinely exciting. Why?

Yes, they’re useful. I don’t want to downplay that, but the interest is out of proportion to their utility.

I think folksonomies have excited us because of what they say. They are symbols. But of what?

First, we’ve embraced folksonomies so fervently also because they stick it to The Man. We don’t need no stinkin’ experts to organize ideas and information! There is, of course, inefficiency built into expert-based taxonomies because they have to choose one way of ordering, and that one way is necessarily infested with personal, class, and cultural biases. As Clay Shirky says, “Metadata is worldview.” But beyond the inefficiency, simpy having someone else have the authority to say “It shall be filed thus” is a statement of political authority. Even when the experts do a good job—as they usually do, because they’re experts—it is still an implicit statement that someone else’s way of thinking is better than yours.

In the face of this, folksonomy says not just that we each have our own way, but that something like ours emerges from it. Folksonomies are proof of the power of emergence. Emergence is a fascinating phenomenon because it explains complexity through intrinsic simplicity. E.g., termites build complex towers by following rules so simple that they fit in a termite’s brain. But there is also a political side to our interest in emergence, beyond its explanatory power. Emergence is hope. It says (or we take it as saying) that left to ourselves, without extrinsic structuring or regulation or governance, we will be magnificent. This is beyond the hope implicit in democracy, that says a group will be able to live together if all are given equal power. We won’t just live together, but something far beyond the capabilities of any of us will emerge. Simply by being together, cathedrals will emerge.

Folksonomies also embrace excess. Publishing and broadcasting by their nature require us to trim the fat from our world. That’s how those systems survive—a publisher that published everything would go out of business on day one. Folksonomies, on the other hand, promise us that we will manage even if we include everything. In fact, folksonomies do better when there are massive numbers of tags. (They also are most useful when they remain diverse. A folksonomy that creates absolute momentum around a single tag, so that over time everyone uses only that tag, is not just non-optimal, it’s dangerous…a “tyranny of the majority.”)

Finally, in embracing tagging and folksonomies we’re rejecting the essentialism our Western tradition began with. Essentialism says that of all the ways of understanding a thing, one is its real way. This makes intuitive sense to us, because we recognize that using a hammer as a doorstop is an oddball use of a hammer; it remains first and foremost something we use for hammering. But essentialism is expensive to maintain. Its metaphysics are convoluted and unbelievable. It inhibits thought. It reflects cultural hegemony. It is unenforceable. And it alienates meaning, putting it into the world rather than among us where it belongs. Folksonomy returns meaning to us, but makes it larger than any one of us. We shouldn’t need folksonomy to do this; language itself should be proof enough. But essentialism has been such a powerful force that we do need folksonomy to kick it in its teeth one more time.

Essentialism includes not just the essences but also their arrangement, their ordering. Folksonomy makes that, too, ours…although, as anything more than a reflection of how we’ve joined and disjoined meaning, it makes me nervous. Beyond the tyranny of the majority, folksonomizing meaning removes the poetry of essentialism, replacing it with statistical averaging.

But folksonomy is not, will not, and should not be our only way of ordering the world. And that’s part of folksonomy’s symbolism as well. Or at least I hope so.

I wish I hadn’d written this post in such a hurry :(

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