Folks on Folksonomy

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You'll recall that last week I promised to visit the following in more detail:

Elaine Peterson, Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy
David Weinberger, Beneath the Metadata, a Reply
Tom Vander Wal, Beneath the Metadata - Replies

Well, here I am. David and Tom have dealt pretty substantially with Peterson, and I haven't been following the discussions sparked by the pieces, so forgive me if I repeat someone else. I'm not going to write a full-scale essay here, but I'd like to make a few points.

First, a little context. One of my all-time favorite essays is Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences." It's one of the more accessible pieces of Derrida's writing, and tips the attentive reader off to a number of the themes that JD would revisit throughout his career. But it's always been a fave of mine because it lays out a particular rhetorical strategy that I've since seen repeated many, many times. Although it's not the sole focus of the essay, JD distinguishes between mythomorphic and epistemic discourses. I don't have the essay beside me, or I'd serve up some quotes. Mythomorphic discourse is fuzzy, messy, vague, imprecise, while epistemic discourse is much crisper, focused, organized. Think, as I think JD does, of the bricoleur and engineer, respectively.

The rhetorical strategy that the essay calls my attention to is a two-fold one. First, epistemic discourse emerges from the mythomorphic; one analogy I've always found helpful is the way that some slang eventually finds its way into "official" accounts of our language. The second move is that this latter discourse effectively seals itself off from its mythomorphic origins. You can see this 2-step as an early version of deconstructive reading, particularly of philosophical texts--much of JD's time is spent examining textual seams to find the messiness that has been disavowed by logocentrism. There is no small advantage for defenders of a system in disavowing its emergent origins--if a given system is simply "the way things are," rather than "the way things have become," then anyone seeking to change that system has that much more inertia to overcome.

I've spent a fair shake of time on this pattern because I think that Peterson's essay provides a fairly textbook example of the relationship that Derrida is working through in that essay. Like Vander Wal, I consider folksonomies and taxonomies "co-dependent" in that both are vital. But I think he underestimates the extent to which that position, which seems common sense to him (and me) is threatening to those who are consciously invested in taxonomy. It would be child's play to look at a given taxonomy, and to examine all the ways that it emerges folksonomically--Peterson's appeals to authorial intent ("...the goal is to recognize the author's intent over others' interpretations.") overlooks a vast network of classifications that emerge after "authorial intent" could play any sort of role. We don't categorize aesthetic movements, for example, prior to their instantiation by a given set of artists. But those categories ultimately become something akin to first principles, frames through which we understand the artists and works placed under its aegis, whether by "authors" themselves or by those who follow.

Peterson's essay, if it has one overarching blind spot, is that it cannot conceive of folksonomy in terms other than "A is not B," what she calls "the most important philosophical underpinning of traditional classification." And so, she doesn't see folksonomies and taxonomies in relation to one another; they are alternatives, from the first sentence introducing the former ("...folksonomy has emerged as an alternative to traditional classification."). All of the so-called weaknesses of folksonomy are weaknesses only if folksonomies are seen as an attempt to arrive at the goals of taxonomies through another means. Relativism is a Really Bad Idea when it comes to laying out a library, but pretty innocuous as an organizing principle for my home library, which tends to sort itself out according to how recently I've used a particular book.

I guess the point I'm working towards here is the assumption that Peterson uses to disavow the relationship of taxonomy to folksonomy: that because we can appeal to philosophical underpinnings when it comes to taxonomy, there must be corresponding underpinnings to folksonomy. The underpinnings of folksonomy, however, are rhetorical. Tags are about language-in-use, not about abstract definitional categories. They are addressed, even when the addressee is one's self at a later date. Folksonomy is bricolage, and so Peterson's conclusion that it makes for poor engineering is at once self-evident and a little inconsequential. Folksonomies are not "bad taxonomies"; rather, taxonomies are themselves folksonomies that have achieved a certain level of stability and intersubjectivity (this latter of which is mistaken by Peterson and others for objectivity). And part of the way that stability is achieved and defended is by denying the role that folksonomy plays in the origins of any taxonomy.

One more point, and I'll sign off. This is a point that I've been working at ever since my NFAIS talk last fall. There is no such thing as "search," at least not in the generic sense. The idea that all searches have the same premises and the same goals is mistaken. As you read Peterson, you'll see reference to categories, subject headings, search engines, etc. All of these references assumes a uniform model of search, one that I think of as "cold search," where you have nothing, and want something, and use the tools of taxonomy to locate it. (I think of this as the equivalent of cold call telemarketing.) And we search that way, sometimes. When we do, taxonomies are important.

But there's a different kind of search, which I'll call "social search," for wont of a better term (I'm open to suggestion). I also think of it as lateral search. I have something (some sources, a book, a favorite movie, song, whatever), and I want more of whatever I already have. So when I see a cover blurb on a novel that compares it favorably to something I've already read and liked, I'm more likely to buy it. When my friends with similar tastes recommend to me movies or music, I'm more likely to look into it. If I want more information about folksonomy, I can go to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, bookmark it in, and then trace out the network of others who have marked and tagged it. I don't need to start back at square one, break out Google, and try to narrow my search terms sufficiently.

The problem is that 90% (and maybe more) of discussions about "search" only think about cold searching. And honestly, folksonomies don't have much to contribute to the cold search, other than chaos. But for the stuff that matters for me, the culture I consume, 90% of my searches are lateral. My tastes aren't organized by the section headings in Barnes and Noble. The innovation of sites like Amazon, iTunes, and others is their ability to aggregate folksonomy (and yes, folksonomies are the Long Tail of classification) in productive ways beyond one's immediate social network. I never search Amazon using their taxonomies. I hardly ever find sources for my academic work by cold search. Most of my life is conducted easily and efficiently via folksonomies.

Damn. Every time I start an entry claiming that I won't write a full-scale essay, I write an entry that's far longer than normal. So I guess I'll stop here, and go work on other stuff. Although I will say that this has got me thinking about expanding this into a full-length essay. Not tonight, though, or even this semester.

That is all.


I still like my definition of folksonomies as taxonomies that put on airs, BUT...

this post is GREAT! Is there a more "stable" form that I could use to distribute these thoughts? I want to assign this post/microessay in my Electronic Communication class next semester and I want some snootiness to frame the way you pull these threads together. I have bookmarked this particular post, but are you goin' to put this into some sort o' PDF or something for distribution?

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on November 27, 2006 8:05 PM.

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