Monday, April 02, 2007


This is one of those things that I am quite interested in but know relatively little about. It seems to me that given my area of work tends to focus a lot on metadata, I should have a greater knowledge about folksonomies; we are, after all, talking about metadata (generally subject metadata) assigned by members of the public. As a result, I decided to do a bit of research on the web to learn more. One of the many articles that I came across was a literature review (opens in new window) carried out by an assistant librarian at the Royal College of Music. In her review, Edith Speller outlined some of the themes and provided a long and helpful list of articles for further reading (it was a lit review afterall!). I have picked a few of those articles out and had a look and below are what I have learnt and some of my thoughts:
  • I wonder how easy it is to get people to add their own metadata…if you look at the metadata assigned to music files, the data is partial at best and this is data that can be freely and automatically downloaded.

  • With potentially an infinite number of “taggers” how can we hope to achieve consistency and accuracy? For example, do we use singular or plural nouns and what about the use of capitalisation?

  • A major plus to this concept (over the dictated thesaurus or taxonomy) is that the terms that are used to describe or classify are chosen by the end users themselves and so, in volume, are going to be the right ones.

  • The fact that there are so many different people potentially tagging items, the basic level of variation comes into effect. This concept refers to the level of detail into which an individual will go to describe the subject or format of the item (e.g. personal music player vs. iPod nano)
    • The tags can be perfectly accurate and yet totally useless if they’re not at the right level for the individual’s needs

  • Folksonomies are flexible and evolve with time to match current terms and concepts unlike fixed systems like the DDC into which librarians are continuously cramming new concepts and terms.
    • The flip side of this flexibility, or the price of it, is that unless previously tagged items are reclassified, the items become lost and inconsistency creeps in making these items difficult or even impossible to find
    • It could be argued that it something can’t be found using current terminology, it is likely that the contents of that document have been superseded…

  • There is no active management of synonyms in folksonomies leading to reduced recall
    • To mitigate this problem, some sights (e.g. make all tags used visible

  • As for synonyms, there is no active management of homonyms (Apple the company vs apple the fruit) which leads to reduced search precision
    • By searching using more than one term (Apple and music vs apple and pastry) limited context can be achieved and search precision improves

  • My final thought on folksonomies is that users will need to ‘learn’ a slightly different vocabulary for each new database, at least initially. Over time and use, the differences could be ironed out and convergence could occur for those sights that appeal to a broad base of users.
I think that there could be a great deal of value in using a "folksonomy" approach to tagging content on the corporate Intranet. Rereading the points above, the benefits are ones that would be welcomed in that environment (e.g. terms chosen by ‘the people’) and the draw-backs are somewhat mitigated by the close relationship between the users (e.g. the use of synonyms and homonyms).

We are looking at our overarching IT, IS, IM, and KM strategy at the moment and attention will eventually focus on the very poor Intranet system that we are using. At that time, I think that I will suggest it!


deargreenplace said...

Hi David,

I'm guessing you've already had a look at LibraryThing's tags - they're a great example of folksonomies. They have a tagger's group, and Tim Spalding has written an interesting post on the Thingology blog about the subject - turns out that when Amazon (US) tried to encourage shoppers to tag, they weren't so interested - quite the opposite of how LT users have reacted. The post is
here .

Must say I am very impressed by your metadata knowledge! Some very interesting posts here.

David Bruce said...

Thanks for the link - I shall have a look...