Wonderful Matt Locke piece on folksonomies, which introduces not one but two substantial ideas to the debate:

Perhaps this illustrates the limit of folksonomies – they are only useful in a context in which nothing is at stake. [Emphasis his] Folksonomies are, in essence, just vernacular vocabularies; the ad-hoc languages of intimate networks. They have existed as long as language itself, but have been limited to the intimate networks that created them. At the point in which something is at stake, either within that network or due to its engagement with other networks (legal, financial, political, etc) vernacular communication will harden into formal taxonomy, and in this process some of its slipperiness and playfulness will be lost.

He relates this to the idea of play from finite and infinite games. (I’m more optimistic about the shift here than he is, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but I think he’s spot on about the gap between palyful and serious categorization.)

The other idea, from Bowker and Star’s marvelous Sorting Things Out, is about the inherent tension in classification generally:

Bowker and Star identify three values that are in competition within classfication structures: comparability, visibility and control. Folksonomies have elevated visibility, but at the expense of comparability (being able to translate classifications across taxonomies or contexts) and control (the ability of the classification to limit interpretation, rather than interpret ‘emergent’ behaviour). Whilst nothing is at stake, and there is little lost by not being able to transfer taxonomies from one context to the other, or users are not disadvantaged by the need to independently assess and contextualise meaning, folksonomies will provide a useful service.

Just a fantastic post.

The only place I vary from Matt (it’s not even a disagreement, really, just a prediction about the future) is in the eventual value of folksonomy. He likens folksonomies to vernacular vocabularies, but this doesn’t describe their first-order importance, at least not where systems like del.icio.us are concerned.

Here’s what’s radical about what del.icio.us protends: My vocabulary on del.icio.us folksonomy is personal, not vernacular — no one knows or needs to know which class I’m talking about when I tag something ‘class’, or that I use LOC to mean Library of Congress. This isn’t the same as, say, the dictionary of thieves slang from the mid-18th c. because no one else needs to know my bookmark system, and I don’t need to know anyone else’s, or, to quote Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This is really, truly different, because it uses the intiution of markets — aggregate self-interest creates shared value. Locke points to the loss of control as one of the downsides of folksonomic classification (at least in its del-style form), but there are significant upsides as well. The LOC has no top-level category for queer issues, but del.icio.us does, because its users want it to.

By forcing a less onerous choice between personal and shared vocabularies, del.icio.us shows us a way to get categorization that is low-cost enough to be able to operate at internet scale, while ensuring that the emergent consensus view does not have to be pushed onto any given participant.

Which is why it mystifies me that both Matt and danah are so concerned with exclusion — who’s excluded here, who isn’t also excluded from using the internet generally? Put another way, is anyone excluded from using del.icio.us who has better representation in other classification schemes?

The del.icio.us answer is “If you don’t like the way something is tagged, tag it yourself. No one can tell you not to.” Prior ot del.icio.us, controlled vocabularies were almost inevitably vocabularies that pushed the politics of the creators onto the users; that is upended here.

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