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Mob indexing? Folk categorization? Social tagging?

For folks interested in free tagging systems such as those seen on and Flickr, Adam Mathes’ essay, “Folksonomies – Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata” is required reading. It’s probably the single most thoughtful discussion of the issues at hand.

Among other things, Adam takes me to task for using “ethnoclassification,” because classification schemes require applying single, or mutually exclusive, classifications to an item. Citing Elin Jacobs’ “Classification and categorization: a difference that makes a difference” essay, he argues that what we’re seeing is categorization.

However, considering its presence in the title of his essay, Adam seems perfectly happy with the term “folksonomy” which, if anything, is even more wronger than classification. In Jacob’s article, taxonomy (from which “folksonomy” is coined) “is carried out within the arbitrary framework established by a set of universal principles,” and is listed as a subset of classification.

Yes, it annoys me that “folksonomy” is becoming accepted because, 1) it’s inaccurate and 2) it’s ugly. I’ll cop to “ethnoclassification” being insufficient. But where does that leave us? Other terms I’ve seen, like “distributed classification” are clunky and inaccurate, too.

Elin Jacobs’ essay suggests some possibilities. (I can’t recommend you read the essay — clarity and brevity is not the good professor’s strong suit. But if you want a crash course on this stuff, it’s a pretty complete work.) Jacobs discusses postcoordinate indexing, defined elsewhere as “A method of indexing materials that creates separate entries for each concept in an item, allowing the item to be retrieved using any combination of those concepts in any order.” This is exactly what we’re doing with free tagging.

Which lead to the title of this post. I somehow want to combine a synonym for “multiple of people”, such as “folk”, “mob,” or “social” with some accurate description of the activity, “indexing,” “categorization”, “tagging.”

(Though I recognize, sadly, that “folksonomy” will likely stick.)


  1. Peter, I think you are a little off on your guesses this time. Folksonomy is not a perfect term, but you have the etymology dead wrong. Must be travel or holiday mindset or something as most anthropologist are great etymologist, which is why I enjoy their company.

    Taxonomy is the broken into the “taxis” and “nomia” or “nomos” (depending on definition used) from Greek. Taxis is the arrangement or classification part of the term. Nomia is the method and nomos is management. I think you got the terms flipped when translating, which is understandable.

    Hence, if you use the neologism folksonomy you have a regular people(s) method or management. This is what the word was intended to mean and what is etymologically correct.

    Additionally, the practice of free tagging, also was including Google’s Gmail, which is not a social practice but a private personal practice. Therefore, mob nor social would be accurate. This does make folksonomy slightly off, unless we are talking about the practice of regular folks in their approaches to categorizing or managing their tags.

  2. Whoops! I linked to the essay now. That was an oversight.

    With respect to “folksonomy” — I don’t give a fiddle for etymology. I care about definitions and use… and “taxonomy”, which folksonomy is meant to evoke, is specific to classifications.

    I didn’t flip any terms — I could care less about the etymology.

    And, even so, according to your etymology, “folksonomy” means “folk management” or “folk method,” which is meaningless — management of what?

    Your right to distinguish free tagging… But what the article was about, and what is of broader interest (I think) is the social metadata — whatever we call it.

  3. There’s an easy and practical 1-letter solution: “tagonomy” or “tagsonomy.” The coinage both evokes its formal and hierarchical cousin “taxonomy” while contrasting it with a more social practice — collaborative tagging.

    It improves on the existing neologism, “folksonomy,” by actually describing the process of labeling and managing a piece of data with a tag.

  4. I think your point about post-coordinate indexing is right on. I was playing with “distributed post-coordinate indexing” and “social post-coordinate indexing.” Maybe we should tie two recent threads together and call it “massively multiplayer post-coordinate indexing.” 🙂

  5. Hi Peter and all,
    Thanks for, as usual, providing a thought-provoking discussion.

    I think that the term folksonomy is not appropriate for the reasons you mention but also because it reinforces a two-tier system. Because of the connotations of the term “folk” – there is an implication that the classifications/descriptions arrived at by formalists and the academic world are somehow better than those that emerge from the collective (the folk). It reminds me of the term “folk art” or “outsider art” which is used in the art world to enforce a similar two-tier system. Given the usefulness of many of the world’s classification systems, which were arrived at out-of-need and in an informal manner, I don’t think the two-tier implications are warranted.

    I would suggest the terms “emergent” and/or “collective” (as in collective unconscious) be used.


    adj 1: done by or characteristic of individuals acting together; “a joint identity”; “the collective mind”; “the corporate good” [syn: corporate] 2: forming a whole or aggregate [ant: distributive]

    Regarding “post-coordinate indexing”, I think its a pretty complicated term for a very simple and intuitive concept!


  6. Actually, “tagonomy” is great. Best one I’ve heard.

  7. I’m not sure (despite being a plaque-carrying member) that the academic or intellectual really gets a say when the folks get involved in definitions. Consider television (half Latin, half Greek), which the ad-boyos came up with, and which in today’s speak has become fogeyed by “tv” on one side of the pond and “telly” on the other. Did an etymologist get a say in that one? Can you nail down why “gay” went from “riotous” in the ’40’s to “homosexual” in the ’70’s, or get a meaningful etymology for “rock’n’roll”? I’d say folksonomy is a product of, precisely, a folksonomy.

  8. ‘…”folk management” or “folk method,” which is meaningless…’

    “management by the people,” “a method utilized by the people.” meaningful.

  9. I have just implemented a folksonomy, it is still pretty much in its infancy and potentially buggy, however if anyone wants to try it, it is at

    I am also struggling for a name, I have sort of settled for Social Thesaurus.

    You use the tree to navigate to one of the blogs or feeds and then you press ‘animalise me’, which brings you to the folksonomy.

    If anyone has any comments I would be very interested to hear them:

  10. With a background in Architecture and Town Planning, one cannot avoid the urban metaphor proposed by Adam Mathes, when he compares free tagging with desire lines. I was born in a planned city that had its pedestrian paths paved according to a plan. But on its enormous open grass fields, people decided to choose their paths, defining desired lines. Surprisingly, there are not so many paths that the grass does not grow at all. Very much on the contrary, people decide to follow other people’s desired lines, or paths, in a way that the grass fields are kept as green as ever. This may seem poetic, but it shows that it is human to choose, but it is also human to choose what other ones had chosen before. Be it for establishing a pattern, be it for ease or convenience, or be it for not reinventing the wheel. Anyway, the way you call it is the less important thing. Why not folksonomy? Or, if this is a free space for suggestions: wishsonomy or desiresonomy…

  11. Do you know where I might find that article? The link doesn’t work anymore. Thanks.

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