Is there an Example of a Scalable Taxonomy?

Kevin Gamble (via Dave Weinberger):

“Is there any living, breathing example of a taxonomic approach working (scaling) to keep-up with the hyper-efficiency we see in peer-production systems? I’m being quite serious here. Can you point me to a working model?.”

Why is this an important question?

Kevin Gamble (via Dave Weinberger):

“Is there any living, breathing example of a taxonomic approach working (scaling) to keep-up with the hyper-efficiency we see in peer-production systems? I’m being quite serious here. Can you point me to a working model?.”

Why is this an important question?

This is an important question because of the widely-held assumption that taxonomies are the right answer for most of our information organization problems.

The thing is, I’m not happy with any taxonomy, really. I can’t think of a single one that works well for me, let alone works perfectly. Even a site with as simple a taxonomy as Apple.com confuses me, with some links on the 2nd level nav (like software and hardware) that are clearly a wider scope than those on the top level. I have to remember that this is the case when I want to find the software page…I have to remember the taxonomy, which to me is a mark of a poor one.

Even the taxonomies I build for myself don’t work all the time, though they work much better than those that others build that I have to use.

A reasonable response might be that taxonomies are the best tool we’ve got. Most of that argument rests on these facts:

  1. Taxonomies have been around for a long, long time and are the core of several disciplines including library science and are thus trusted by many practitioners as the Right Way to Do Things.
  2. Taxonomies are easily implemented without the input of users. This is a bad idea, of course, but that’s a big reason why there are so many of them.
  3. Folksonomies are new and therefore scary. Even the best example of them, Del.icio.us, has only been around for a couple years and only been working at a huge scale for about a year.
  4. Folksonomies suffer from the Cold Start Problem (CSP). You have to build up tagging datasets over time, so at the beginning there is really no navigation to build on top of them.

Now, I don’t think that it has to be either/or. We don’t have to build either a taxonomy or a folksonomy, necessarily. They might co-exist in some way, as Thomas Vander Wal has argued.

But the question still stands…are there any examples of knock-down, drag-out taxonomies that scale in today’s world and generally work well for those who use them?

UPDATE Donna Maurer at Digital Web has taken me to task for blurring the question, saying I’m asking for a scalable taxonomy while really wanting one that works. She’s absolutely right…I’m assuming that while it scales the taxonomy still has to be useful. Can’t we have both? :)

Published: January 30th, 2007

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