Folksonomy: A Big Word for a Common Concept


People like to use big words for common things. I think it may be a leftover from academia where it seems that people try to show off their education by using words for things that are so obscure that only those who studied that subject in school would know them. And frequently they are really simple concepts that could be said using a common word or words.

This is common in technology too. People are either so used to using technical terms among their group or they are trying to show their knowledge so they use words that are not easily understood when they could say it many other ways and it would be clear to anyone.

And these people frequently are actually unable to describe or talk about something in a way that can be understood.

Personally, I think people who do this are either careless or insecure. Or perhaps just selfish and are speaking for their own benefit rather than to communicate. In any case, the result is that a lot of people use words that you have to be an insider to understand.

Folksonomy is one such word.

The first time I saw it used, I did not have a clue what they were talking about. So my understanding of what they were trying to get at was greatly lessened until I looked it up. And I found out that they were basically just referring to creating a tag or label used to allow people to search for like things (essentially) and was usually specific to those tags used in Social Networking or Web 2.0 tools such as Flickr or de.licio.us.

Folksonomy is the process of collaborative creation and management of tags in order to categorize content on the web.

So when you add a picture to Flickr and put tags on it like “vacation”, “smoky mountains”, “view”, “valley”: you have participated in a tagging system or folksonomy. And can refer to your tags as folksonomies (according to some people) if you so choose. Or when I create a category for a post so people can find like posts (you can look at the categories I have on my blog for examples). Or when I create keywords for this post, like: folksonomy, folksonomies, definition, label, tag, web 2.0, meaning.

Here is a link to the wikipedia definition of folksonomy and a brief clip of that entry.

From Wikipedia: “A folksonomy is an Internet-based information retrieval methodology consisting of collaboratively generated, open-ended labels that categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links. A folksonomy is most notably contrasted from a taxonomy in that the authors of the labeling system are often the main users (and sometimes originators) of the content to which the labels are applied. The labels are commonly known as tags and the labeling process is called tagging.”

And from a folksonomy page from Vaderwal.net: “The term folksonomy is generally attributed to Thomas Vander Wal. It is a portmanteau of the words folk (or folks) and taxonomy that specifically refers to subject indexing systems created within Internet communities.”.

And to help interpret this, here are some definitions:

Portmanteau: Combining of two or more words or parts of words to create a word such as spork from spoon and fork, or cyborg from cybernetic and organism.

NOTE: for more information and a pronunciation guide to portmanteau, see my post called Everything You Wanted to Know, About the Word Portmanteau.

Taxonomy: The practice and science of classification.

Notice that they still used words that need definition themselves (without defining them), such as portmanteau and taxonomy.

[Side note: Recently, I edited the description of a lecture that was being given to the public about Web 2.0. It contained words like “McLuhanesque” and “meme”. I had to work quite a while to get a good definition of “McLuhanesque”. They ended up being replaced with “media-rich” and “concept”. I suppose you could argue that these are not the exact definitions, but they have the significant advantage of actually being able to be understood.]

So next time you hear someone talk about folksonomy, you will know that they are just using a big word for a common thing that we all have probably used with some regularity. So don’t be intimidated and you can throw in a few portmanteaus and taxonomies to show that you too can baffle them with brilliance. :^)

~Susan Mellott

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