Folksonomies and What’s At Stake

Clay Shirky over at Many-to-Many recently linked to a Matt Locke post about folksonomies that I found interesting. Locke seems skeptical about the revolutionary merits of folksonomies, ultimately seeing them as nothing more than “playing”. He comes to this conclusion by way of his assertion that folksonomies are only useful when “nothing is at stake”. […]

Clay Shirky over at Many-to-Many recently linked to a Matt Locke post about folksonomies that I found interesting.

Locke seems skeptical about the revolutionary merits of folksonomies, ultimately seeing them as nothing more than “playing”. He comes to this conclusion by way of his assertion that folksonomies are only useful when “nothing is at stake”.

I disagree.

First off, I don’t like the term “at stake”, because it is too subjective. What Locke sees as high stakes I may see as low stakes, and vice-versa.

His initial example of nursing helps shed light on this. The Nursing Interventions Classification, Locke says (example taken from the book Sorting Things Out), was needed “in order (for the nurses) to be adequately recognised and compensated by hospital authorities”. This reason, it would seem, is the high stakes for which the formal NIC classification is necessary.

To me, the high stakes isn’t what nurses get paid, it’s how healthy their patients are. And Locke points out that several nurse professionals resisted the NIC because their informal taxonomy based on “natural” language was how they were used to doing their jobs. So, they seem to be practicing this “invisible work” while the very patients’ lives are at stake!

Secondly, Locke questions the implications of folksonomies without questioning the merits of what they might replace or improve upon. Certainly, we should be asking questions about who is benefitting (and becoming marginalized) from collective action classification. But what about formal classifications? Are there not benefits and marginalizations there as well?

Of course there are. One marginalization of a controlled vocabulary is that it cannot possibly elucidate all the ideas it contains. By definition, controlling a vocabulary is controlling the words with which people use within it, thereby reducing the number of possible interpretations. This is a shame. I, for one, believe that the more people express an idea in their own words, the better everyone else’s interpretations become.

Another marginalization is the disadvantage of people who don’t know the vocabulary, but who have to work within it nonetheless. When my wife and I bought our condo, for example, we knew very little about what was actually going on, despite our best efforts to learn the terminology. In fact, I know that if I knew then what I know now that we could have gotten a better deal than we did.

So my question is: When are formal classifications not the bee’s knees?

Thirdly, this really seems to be about standardization and precision. I certainly won’t argue the benefits of standardization, because it is how many things get done. In domains where precision is necessary: (Locke suggests the legal, financial, and political domains), we certainly need standards so that “transactions” are agreed upon.

But in other domains where we do not need precision, it is wrong to say that nothing is at stake. Indeed, everything is at stake because these are the domains in which we are learning. It could be that we are figuring out how to make them into precise domains. We might call these the learning domains. Sure, we play there too, but aren’t these domains as important to leading happy lives as any that rely on financial or legal precision? I don’t think we should discount them by saying nothing is at stake.

Finally, though I’m arguing against some of Locke’s terminology, I’m not really disagreeing with his overall gist. I think that folksonomies are as much a revolution in scale as a revolution in anything else, save one thing. That one thing depends on the visibility that Locke talks about.

Because we are here now, able to look into the minds of others using their very own words, we have the ability to learn more, and learn faster, than we ever could before. We learn not just from those lucky enough to be published, but we learn all the way down the long tail.

Published: March 4th, 2005

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