The Complete Folksonomies Overview

Folksonomies (plural of folksonomy) are bottom-up taxonomies that groups create on their own, as opposed to being created by an individual. Synonyms include mob indexing, folk categorization, social tagging, federated tagging, lazy tagging, folksonomy, tagsonomy, tagonomy, free tagging, distributed classification, post coordinate indexing, collective indexing, user-generated tagging and ethnoclassification. They are, in effect, grassroots classification systems for data.

In the past metadata (data about data) was created either by professional librarians using complex and lengthy rule sets (e.g., Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress book index), or by the authors of the data itself (e.g., indices in the back of books). Folksonomies are created a third way, by the collaborative effort of the document users themselves.

The author of the seminal work on folksonomy and folksonomies is Peter Merholz, although he prefers not to use the terms folksonomy and ethnoclassification. He also describes userexperience, tagging, taxonomy, socialsoftware and facets. The creator of the word folksonomy is reported by Salon to be Thomas Vander Wal. The author of an important work on Folksonomies is Adam Mathes of the University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign. His December 2004 paper titled Folksonomies - Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata examined user-generated metadata as implemented in http// ("Delicious") and http//

Delicious is a "social bookmarks manager." It allows the user to add sites to his personal list, annotate those sites with self-selected keywords and share the list.

Flickr, purchased in March 2005 by Yahoo,  is a photograph annotation and sharing system. It allows the user and his/her friends to store and share photos online, and to add keywords to photos.

Both Delicious and Flickr are free to join, although Flickr has a value-added option that the user can purchase. Striatic, a Flickr member, has written two articles about how to use tags most effectively..

Each system has its limitations, including limited or non-support of multi-word tags and lack of synonym control. One feature of folksonomies is their uncontrolled nature, another is their organic growth.

One could argue that search engines like Google and LookSmart are the ultimate automated folksonomies, since they index the vastness of the world wide web along with other data. GMail is not folksonomy because a person cannot add terms to the index.

From Robin Good:

"A folksonomy represents simultaneously some of the best and worst in the organization of information. 

"Its uncontrolled nature is fundamentally chaotic, suffers from problems of imprecision and ambiguity that well developed controlled vocabularies and name authorities effectively ameliorate. 

"Conversely, systems employing free-form tagging that are encouraging users to organize information in their own ways are supremely responsive to user needs and vocabularies, and involve the users of information actively in the organizational system. 

"Overall, transforming the creation of explicit metadata for resources from an isolated, professional activity into a shared, communicative activity by users is an important development that should be explored and considered for future systems development...."

Steve Reubel, a Public Relations Strategist, states that Folksonomies are both a threat and an opportunity to companies. They can be used to generate positive buzz about a product, but they can also lead to the inadvertent release of company secrets.

Steve also notes that Metafilter, a popular community weblog, has incorporated tags into their site. One of their pages lists the Top 150 Tags. Other tagged sites include Furl, Technorati, with perhaps OhMyNews, Kuro5shin and even Slashdot to follow soon. He foresees the day when Google AdSense might incorporate tags across websites, a phenomenon he calls Tagtextual Advertising.

This article in Wired News (Feb. 1, 2005) by Daniel Terdeman makes a distinction between Broad Folksonomies and Narrow Folksonomies. A broad folksonomy is where many people tag a few objects, while narrow folksonomies are where one or few persons tag many objects.

A dispatch in the February 22, 2005 issue of SearchViews describes Vimeo, a video verson of Flickr. When it emerges from closed beta Vimeo will let you organize and share video clips. The site uses folksonomic methods (tags) to help users locate video clips. Some sample video clips are available now.

Matt Locke has an insightful Feb 25, 2005, piece which argues, among other things, that folksonomies are useful only "in a context in which nothing is at stake." A lively discussion ensued here on March 1.

Tagsy is a social bookmarking and feed management service that integrates with Firefox. 

Wired Online carried a thoughtful story  about folksonomies, Order Out of Chaos, by Bruce Sterling: 

What's the best way to tag, bag, and sort data? Give it to the unorganized masses.

We used to rely on philosophers to put the world in order. Now we've got information architects. But they're not doing the work - we are. There's a revolution going on in the art and science of categorization, and its name is folksonomy....

A March 23, 2005 article on CNetAsia contains the prediction that free tagging will revolutionize web search.

WebProNews ran an interview with Steve Rubel ("arguably the most prominent and influential blogger in the PR profession either side of the Atlantic.") in their 3/26/2005 edition. He promotes folksonomies as a way to make information find-able, and as a way for marketers to judge how folks feel about their products. He compares them to a 24/7 focus group, "incredibly powerful."

Engadget on April 29, 2005, described a new folksonomy / physical location tool: Combining this whole folksonomies thing with Google Maps, FoundCity is a new group mapping tool for cellphones...As in, when you’re walking around the city and see street art you like you can attach it to pre existing tags (,, or start your own tags, like “acupuncture.videos” that go in a citywide database — like for the city....

The Need for Creating Tag Standards (Jan. 15, 2007) explores how different social bookmarking sites use different, incompatible tagging standards and comes up with a pessimistic conclusion: Basically, it’s too late for a tagging standard that will be used unanimously throughout the web. A truly semantic web most certainly won’t ever exist because of the reluctance to change and the unwillingness to compromise and accept defeat. A semantic web requires objective analysis of methods and data, culminating in honestly evaluated options, and immediate acceptance of the outcome. But that’s never going to happen.

Folksonomies are lower in cost than other taxonomic systems and in many ways more useful, and their use seems destined to continue and expand in the future.