Thursday, September 6, 2012

Let’s get our Organize on: Taxonomy vs Folksonomy

Image courtesy of Pop Chart Lab (available as a poster!)
Organization is my dirty little secret. Dirty, because it never seems to trickle down to my own desk, rendering me a professional pig pen. Secret, because I hungrily digest research on sophisticated ways to relate, arrange, and organize information, terrified that I would be pilloried if anyone saw what I was reading.  But “little” is a misnomer. When I am presented with inefficient, ineffective methods of knowledge management that both waste my time and confuse me, I can rage. Like a wild-eyed wildebeest raised solely on Google algorithms, I can rage. And so begins a bender into the world of taxonomies and their much maligned cousins, folksonomies, better known as social tagging.

Rather than cause me innumerable suffering, taxonomies are supposed to help make sense of the world. (Who could live without a taxonomy of beer? Beer.) Taxonomies work behind the scenes, allowing us to fit our product quickly into the right space, so that it can be retrieved by someone else at a later time. They are not just family trees of animal classifications that branch off into the ether, although hierarchies are the form in which they most often appear. Ideally, taxonomies are comprised of three major components: schemes that classify and group items, controlled vocabularies that serve to explain and relate terms, and knowledge maps that clearly demonstrate relationships.

Image courtesy of Green Chameleon

The key word is relationship. It’s very hard work, as we all know. Taxonomies are living creatures; they must not only be established, but tested, and maintained regularly.  There is no one correct way to structure a taxonomy, demonstrated by challenges to these suggested types of science in science fiction.  Do we all agree on how this is organized? I doubt it. (I bet a minor war might break out between CandyBuffet and FreshSnaps if we ever dared to discuss it.) And just think of how much effort has to go into keeping this up-to-date. It's an ever-expanding universe of information! Most fields are, except for Latin and Star Wars. We all like certainty and structure in our relationships, but with the pace of knowledge generation and dissemination, how can practical taxonomies keep up? Like the good cynic I am, I argue that they cannot possibly do so. Enter folksonomies, stage right.

Image courtesy of Little Red Crayon
Wikipedia has an excellent entry on folksonomies, with a nicely articulated definition: “A folksonomy is a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.” Contrary to popular belief and Bill Murray, it is not mass chaos. Organization does emerge, categories can be identified, especially at higher levels, and among groups of individuals working in similar fields. Complex adaptive systems, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (though he never uses the term), run rampant in our society, including our knowledge management systems. They forsake top-down, centrally managed systems for user-generated classifications. Patterns shift as knowledge is generated, used, and modified, which is incredibly fast. It shouldn't be that surprising: people are good at classifying their own stuff, and the stuff that they're interested in. Perhaps a tenuous relationship can emerge, where folksonomies help to craft taxonomies and maintain their relevance. And then maybe we all can find organizational happiness in the balance.