Liz’s fantastic posts on folksonomy (one, two) detail the new issues we’re facing or will face around folksonomic organization. In the first post, though, she takes on my earlier argument about the economic value of folksonomy, saying

Clay argues that detractors from wikipedia and folksonomy are ignoring the compelling economic argument in favor of their widespread use and adoption. Perhaps. But I’m arguing that it’s just as problematic to ignore the compelling social, cultural, and academic arguments against lowest-common-denominator classification. I don’t want to toss out folksonomies. But I also don’t want to toss out controlled vocabularies, or expert assignment of categories. I just don’t believe that all expertise can be replicated through repeated and amplified non-expert input.

I don’t believe that either, so I want to re-state my views on the subject.

I believe that folksonomies will largely displace professionally produced meta-data, and that this will not take very long to happen. However, I do not think that folksonomy is better than controlled vocabularies or expert judgement, except for completely tautological definitions of ‘better’, where the rise of folksonomy is viewed as prima facie evidence of superiority. This is not the position I take.

If I had to craft a statement I thought both Liz and I could agree with, it would be that technology always involves tradeoffs among various characteristics in a particular environment. She goes on to list some of those characteristics, including especially the risks from lowest-common-denominator classifications. So far, so sympatico.

Here’s where I think we disagree. She thinks economic value is another of the characteristics to be traded off. I think economic value is the environment.

Put another way, I don’t think it matters what is lost by not having professionally produced metadata in any environment where that is not an option anyway, by virtue of being priced out of the realm of possibility.

So when she says I am urging an uncritical acceptance of folksonomies, she is half right. I am not in favor of uncriticality; indeed, in the post she references, I note that well-designed metadata is better than folksonomies on traditional axes of comparison.

But she’s right about the ‘acceptance’ half. It doesn’t matter whether we “accept” folksonomies, because we’re not going to be given that choice. The mass amateurization of publishing means the mass amateurization of cataloging is a forced move. I think Liz’s examination of the ways that folksonomies are inferior to other cataloging methods is vital, not because we’ll get to choose whether folksonomies spread, but because we might be able to affect how they spread, by identifying ways of improving them as we go.

To put this metaphorically, we are not driving a car, with gas, brakes, reverse and a lot of choice as to route. We are steering a kayak, pushed rapidily and monotonically down a route determined by the enviroment. We have a (very small) degree of control over our course in this particular stretch of river, and that control does not extend to being able to reverse, stop, or even significantly alter the direction w’re moving in.

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