Folksonomies catching on as a new way to organize web content.

With as fast as things change on the web it can be tricky keeping up with all of the new ways you can do or find things. This is particularly true in the blogging arena where a lot of folks are still trying to figure out what the hell Trackbacks are for, let alone new ways of organizing the entries on your blog, but being the “hep-cool” geek that I am I continue to put forth my best effort at staying close to the bleeding edge. The big thing as of late are the various “folksonomy” methods of organizing data as opposed to the traditional category model such as we use here at SEB.

The traditional category system has some limitations with the primary one being that it’s rather rigid and a good system can take quite a bit of work to setup and maintain. Every now and then, for example, I’ll write an entry (or have one submitted) that doesn’t really fit any of the categories I already have defined. So I have to decide whether to just put the entry into whichever seems the closest match or start a whole new category. If I start a whole new category then I often find myself digging through the archives and updating old entries that seem to fit better into the new category and that can take awhile. When someone submits a guest post they too also have to try and guess what category to place the entry into and I may not have anything that it really fits. There are college courses that are dedicated to the single topic of taxonomy and it’s one of the more common topics of debate among blogging’s big shots.

In comparison, “tagging” is done at the time the content is created and doesn’t rely on predefined categories. If what you’re writing about deals with blogging then you just tag it as such and the system does the rest. This can be either be done in a dedicated form field or it can be done within the content itself depending on the folksonomy system in use. The cool part is that different people may tag the same content differently so in social software settings the means of finding a particular bit of data actually increases as more people contribute their tags to the content in question. Probably the two best known examples of folksonomy systems are the bookmarking service and the Flickr photo hosting service, both very popular with bloggers, but the coolest implementation of a system such as this probably goes to Technorati as not only does it have its own tagging system that can either use the traditional categories on your blog or special links in your content for the tags, but it also pulls in related information using said tags from both and Flickr. The buzz surrounding folksonomy is growing and the folks at Wired magazine have an article up about it:

“The job of tags isn’t to organize all the world’s information into tidy categories,” said Stewart Butterfield, one of Flickr’s co-founders. “It’s to add value to the giant piles of data that are already out there.”

These days, a growing number of sites whose content is user-created rely on tagging systems, also known as folksonomies, for the added value Butterfield is talking about. Flickr and the social-bookmarking site Delicious, along with Furl, are generally considered folksonomy trailblazers, but now sites like MetaFilter and the blog index Technorati have jumped on board, and more are expected to follow.

“It’s very much people tagging information so that they can come back to it themselves or so that others with the same vocabulary can find it,” said Thomas Vander Wal, the information architect credited with coining the term “folksonomy.”

“To me, they’re a great new organization tool for applications and large content sites,” said Matt Haughey, the founder of MetaFilter. “Tags are great because you throw caution to the wind, forget about whittling down everything into a distinct set of categories and instead let folks loose categorizing their own stuff on their own terms.”

When trackbacks first arrived on the scene I wasn’t entirely certain I understood the point at the time, but the benefits of tagging content seem a lot easier to grasp, especially from a writing perspective. My blog entries tend to be very stream-of-consciousness in how they come about and the traditional category system doesn’t always work well for that kind of writing. The idea of being able to instill a modicum of order by slapping a tag or two (or three) on an entry without having to worry about those tags being defined ahead of time is very appealing. The fact that those tags can then interact with similar tagging systems from services such as Technorati or Flickr opens up whole new potential uses.

I’m thinking about trying to do something similar here at SEB. I’m a bit behind the cutting edge at this point as John Hoke has already implemented a tagging system for his EE blog using Andy Crouch’s Keywords Plugin that specifically enables such a system in ExpressionEngine.

So I’m looking for some feedback on it. Anyone else think this is a good idea? I’d also like some feedback on the other aspects of the site that you find particularly useful or not as I’m looking at ripping things apart to try and improve page rendering times. Specifically the sidebar and what parts you feel are useful and which aren’t and which you could live without. Pipe up and let me know your thoughts.

10 thoughts on “Folksonomies catching on as a new way to organize web content.

  1. Well seeing John do it and then seeing how it is not too hard for even a blogger to use Technorati’s tagging system I decided to go ahead and use Technorati’s tags on my posts.

    I think it’s a great way to index posts on each person’s blog with the rest of the world out there.

  2. Elwed, not sure I follow what you want me to look at. The taxonomy system he has is pretty cool, but I don’t see anything explaining how he’s doing it or how others might do it.

  3. If you spend a couple of weeks (and I mean this literally) digging through the site, you’ll find some incarnation or other of the site kit. Let me have a look to see if I can find my local copy.

  4. I’m definitely considering whether I should implement Andy’s “Keywords” Plugin on the (ever-so-slow) migration I’m doing to EE for my own personal site.  Once I actually figure out exactly what’s going on I don’t think it should be too hard to implement.  Well, for future entries, anyway—going back and “indexing” old entries may or may not be feasible.

    As for your site, Les… I must admit that your sidebar is simply huge.  It’s so large it overwhelmed me when I first visited.  Off the top of my head, I think you could cut down on the number of monthly archive links shown (list the recent few months and a link to get to the others).  Similarly, you could link to a “Category Archive” page that had the list of category archive links.

    You also have Recent Entries, Recent Comments, Threads with New Comments, and Most Commented Threads.  Oh, and a blogroll.  That just seems like a lot of data to be displaying on the side.

  5. The sidebar is my primary focus as I agree that it’s way overkill at this point, but that’s why I’m not a usability specialist. grin

    That’s why I’m asking for folks to tell me what parts they actually use. I was surprised, for example, that so many folks actually use the little list of most recent comments I put along the bottom of each entry on the main page. I only know this because when I first switched to EE it wasn’t doable using standard tags and I got a lot of email about it.

  6. I use most SE comments the most, followed by most commented and recently commented threads.  I never use recent entries because I can just scroll down.

    I love the flickr system for tagging, though it can be just as tedious going back through those tags when you realize you’ve missed something.

    Out of curiosity, I noticed that you often have more than one category attached to a post—how is that different from tagging?

  7. Out of curiosity, I noticed that you often have more than one category attached to a post—how is that different from tagging?

    Think of it in a container model. While using categories, you have a finite set of ‘topics’ that you put your posts into. If a post does not fit your containers, you need to create a new category, and usually go back and edit other posts that should be in that category as well…

    So posts are contained in categories.

    With Tags/Keywords, they are contained in the post, and describe the post. If you want to post something on a tag you never used before, all you need to do is enter the tag and you are done.

    There is a good starting poing on taxonomies v. folksonomies at wikipedia.

    While I obviously prefer tags to categories, neither is perfect, and each have strengths. I would say categories are better in more structured situations, corporate intranets, political campaign sites, anywhere that the message needs fine grained control…  it’s all a matter of where you want to control things, in posts, or in categories smile

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