There’s a post by Louis Rosenfeld on the downsides of folksonomies, and speculation about what might happen if they are paired with controlled vocabularies.

…it’s easy to say that the social networkers have figured out what the librarians haven’t: a way to make metadata work in widely distributed and heretofore disconnected content collections.Easy, but wrong: folksonomies are clearly compelling, supporting a serendipitous form of browsing that can be quite useful. But they don’t support searching and other types of browsing nearly as well as tags from controlled vocabularies applied by professionals. Folksonomies aren’t likely to organically arrive at preferred terms for concepts, or even evolve synonymous clusters. They’re highly unlikely to develop beyond flat lists and accrue the broader and narrower term relationships that we see in thesauri.

I also wonder how well Flickr, del.icio.us, and other folksonomy-dependent sites will scale as content volume gets out of hand.

This is another one of those Wikipedia cases — the only thing Rosenfeld is saying that’s actually wrong is that ‘lack of development’ bit — del.icio.us is less than a year old and spawning novel work like crazy, so predicting that the thing has run out of steam when people are still freaking out about Flickr seems like a fatally premature prediction.

The bigger problem with Rosenfeld’s analysis is its TOTAL LACK OF ECONOMIC SENSE. We need a word for the class of comparisons that assumes that the status quo is cost-free, so that all new work, when it can be shown to have disadvantages to the status quo, is also assumed to be inferior to the status quo.

The advantage of folksonomies isn’t that they’re better than controlled vocabularies, it’s that they’re better than nothing, because controlled vocabularies are not extensible to the majority of cases where tagging is needed. Building, maintaining, and enforcing a controlled vocabulary is, relative to folksonomies, enormously expensive, both in the development time, and in the cost to the user, especailly the amateur user, in using the system.

Furthermore, users pollute controlled vocabularies, either because they misapply the words, or stretch them to uses the designers never imagined, or because the designers say “Oh, let’s throw in an ‘Other’ category, as a fail-safe” which then balloons so far out of control that most of what gets filed gets filed in the junk drawer. Usenet blew up in exactly this fashion, where the 7 top-level controlled categories were extended to include an 8th, the ‘alt.’ hierarchy, which exploded and came to dwarf the entire, sanctioned corpus of groups.

The cost of finding your way through 60K photos tagged ‘summer’, when you can use other latent characteristics like ‘who posted it?’ and ‘when did they post it?’, is nothing compared to the cost of trying to design a controlled vocabulary and then force users to apply it evenly and universally.

This is something the ‘well-designed metadata’ crowd has never understood — just because it’s better to have well-designed metadata along one axis does not mean that it is better along all axes, and the axis of cost, in particular, will trump any other advantage as it grows larger. And the cost of tagging large systems rigorously is crippling, so fantasies of using controlled metadata in environments like Flickr are really fantasies of users suddenly deciding to become disciples of information architecture.

This is exactly, eerily, as stupid as graphic designers thinking in the late 90s that all users would want professional but personalized designs for their websites, a fallacy I was calling “Self-actualization by font.” Then the weblog came along and showed us that most design questions agonized over by the pros are moot for most users.

Any comparison of the advantages of folksonomies vs. other, more rigorous forms of categorization that doesn’t consider the cost to create, maintain, use and enforce the added rigor will miss the actual factors affecting the spread of folksonomies. Where the internet is concerned, betting against ease of use, conceptual simplicity, and maximal user participation, has always been a bad idea.

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