In the early 2000s, search engines were not widespread and research process was done mainly by browsing through “directories”. Those of Yahoo, Lycos and AOL were among the more used.
My first job at the time was to select and classify “personal” websites to integrate them in the directories of Multimania and Lycos portals.
My two employers of that time were looking for a viable business model - which they will never find - by thinking of charging the entrance fees of their directories. The idea was not incongruous in the context although very far from the ideals of the Internet imagined by its creator Tim Berners-Lee. Anyway the model was not viable and filed! The rapid rise of the search engines - Altavista and then Google - rang the death knell of directories and their unmanageable and very incomplete taxonomy. Users then change their research habits and quickly think keywords and word association.
Few years later, after the collapse of the “Web 1.0”, rises the “Web 2.0” and its “Social Web” : blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, etc. The first social networks are created as del.icio.us: a social bookmarking site which allows user to save and share his Internet “bookmarks” and to classify them by keywords, tags. Other sites also offer this type of classification as Flickr or YouTube ; Folksonomy was born.
What is folksonomy?
A folksonomy is a collaborative classification performed by nonspecialists. Unlike a thesaurus, contributors of a folksonomy are not constrained to a predefined terminology and can adopt the terms they want to classify their resources.
The french website Thesaurus-REX rightly underlines the spirit of folksonomy: “We are very far from the universality of thesaurus languages. Each person organizes his or her tags in the way they wish. It can affect all domains without semantic and hierarchical relations. “ (Source).
The term “folksonomy” was created by the information architect Thomas Vander Wal. It is a portmanteau word combining “folk” and “taxonomy”.
Folksonomy aims to share informations. It is part of a collaborative approach by creating communities of users interested in the same subject. There are plenty of examples : Technorati, a search engine for blogs is often considered as one of the initiators of folksonomy; Flickr allows users to freely label their photographs; Pinterest offers a visual folksonomy with the creation of Boards; LinkedIn proposes via keywords to identify Competences; Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, all give users the ability to submit tags, links, photos, descriptions and classify them.
How folksonomy revolutionized the Internet
In May 2006, Olivier le Deuff in his article “Folksonomies, Users index the web” wondered about the future of this new type of indexing: “Is the phenomenon sustainable or is it only one trend ?” (Source).
The answer is not long; Few weeks later, Jack Dorsey, one of the creators of Twitter, sends his first tweet - “Just setting up my twttr” - and proposes a folksonomic tool : the hashtag.
What may have seemed ephemeral in 2006 is now established. The next step is the spread of Implied Metadata : Metadatas generated automatically and processed by self-learning systems ; they are defined in the fundamentals of “Web Squared”, the intermediate step between “web 2.0” And the future “web 3.0”.
Folksonomic systems are sometimes criticized : impoverish searches and classifications, disinform by astroturfing, etc.
Nevertheless, thanks to this personal labeling, Internet users freely share their interests, their moods, their mistakes “offering insight into user behavior, offering a low cost alternative and engender communities” as Benny Skogberg, the information architect, explains, but wondering if : “Should folksonomy tags be governed or not?”.
LinkedIn, for example, is based on a keyword system which offers the user the opportunity to label his/her professional skills. Those can then be approved and promoted by his/her professional network. Thus, for “user experience”, there are several tags: UX, ux (the case matters), user experience, user experience design, etc. The choice is too wide ans somehow stressful. A limited selection of standardized terms would simplify the task, although it would be more costly and time-consuming to put in place.
Like M. Jourdain in The Bourgeois Gentleman by Molière, a prose writer without knowing it, we are all folksonomist, participating in enriching everyday the serendipian amount informations available to us.
Not simple for information architects to establish a qualitative experience. However, one can be pleased that folksonomy is consistent with Tim Berners-Lee’s primary vision of the Web when he imagined a sharing space based on free and open standards.
Finally, taxonomy is used to classify and store contents. Thesaurus is used to index content with keywords. Therefore, folksonomy is closer to the latter and perhaps it would have been more judicious to call him: folksaurus!