Simplify, reduce, oversimplify

An interesting post on ‘folksonomies’ at Collin Brooke’s blog prompted this comment, which I thought deserved a post of its own.

I think Peter Merholz‘s coinage ‘ethnoclassification’ could be useful here. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think we can see all taxonomies (and ultimately all knowledge) as the product of an extended conversation within a given community: in this respect a taxonomy is simply an accredited ‘folksonomy’.

However, I think there’s a dangerous (but interesting) slippage here between what folksonomies could be and what folksonomies are: between the promise of the project of ‘folksonomy’ (F1) and what’s delivered by any identifiable folksonomy (F2). (You can get into very similar arguments about Wikipedia 1 and Wikipedia 2 – sometimes with the same people.) Compared to the complexity and exhaustiveness of any functioning taxonomic scheme, I don’t believe that any actually-existing ‘folksonomy’ is any more than an extremely sketchy work in progress.

For this reason (among others), I believe we need different words for the activity and the endpoint. So we could contrast classification with Peterme’s ‘ethnoclassification’, on one hand, and note that the only real difference between the two is that the former takes place within structured and credentialled communities. On the other hand, we could contrast actual taxonomies with ‘folksonomies’. The latter could have very much the same relationship with officially-credentialled taxonomies as classification does with ethnoclassification – but they aren’t there yet.

The shift from ‘folksonomy’ to ‘ethnoclassification’ has two interesting side-effects, which I suspect are both fairly unwelcome to folksonomy boosters (a group in which I don’t include Thomas Vander Wal, ironically enough). On one hand, divorcing process and product reminds us that improvements to one don’t necessarily translate as improvements in the other. The activity that goes into producing a ‘folksonomy’, as distinct from a taxonomy, may give more participants a better experience (more egalitarian, more widely distributed, more chatty, more fun) but you wouldn’t necessarily expect the end product to show improvements as a result. (You’d expect it to be a bit scrappy, by and large.) On the other hand, divorcing process from technology reminds us that ethnoclassification didn’t start with del.icio.us; the aggregation of informal knowledge clouds is something we’ve been doing for a long time, perhaps as long as we’ve been human.

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