Yet another new blend: "folksonomy"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Jan 19 04:50:27 UTC 2005

On Tue, 18 Jan 2005 20:04:16 -0500, I wrote:

>Hard to keep track of all the new cyberblends.  Now there's "folksonomy".
>Some cites:
>Gene Smith, "Atomiq: Folksonomy: social classification." Aug 3, 2004
>Last week I asked the AIfIA members' list what they thought about the
>social classification happening at Furl, Flickr and In each
>of these systems people classify their pictures/bookmarks/web pages with
>tags (e.g. wedding), and then the most popular tags float to the top (e.g.
>Flickr's tags or on the right). Thomas Vander Wal, in his
>reply, coined a great name for these informal social categories: a

I was wondering if any of these techno-folk were at all familiar with the
anthropological current known variously ethnoscience, ethnographic
semantics, or cognitive anthropology -- Conklin, Frake, et al. were
analyzing "folk taxonomies" back in the mid-'50s.

>From the looks of this blog entry by Peter Merholz, those in the
"information architecture" field are just discovering this work:

"Ethnoclassification and vernacular vocabularies" (August 30, 2004)

First off, I think we should drop the term "folksonomy." No offense to
Thomas -- it's a catchy term, which, I guess, is why it has caught on.
It's also inaccurate. What bugs me most is the use of the word "taxonomy."
Taxonomies tend toward hierarchy, and they tend to be imposed. Tagging
does not a taxonomy make.
What we're talking about here is "classification." In rooting around,
trying to find some prior research on this topic, I plugged "folk
classification" into Google, it turns out that anthropologists have done
some thinking around this, particularly with respect to ethnobiology, or
how the folk approach biology, and ethnoscience.
This lead me to think that the appropriate term would be
"ethnoclassification", and when I plugged that into Google, I found
"Slouching Toward Infrastructure", a page for a 1996 Digital Libraries
Workshop lead by Susan Leigh Star.

Merholz expanded on "ethnoclassification" in a widely cited article called
"Metadata for the Masses" (October 19, 2004):
He gives UCSD communications professor Susan Leigh Star credit for coining
"ethnoclassification", but I'm sure that Leigh Star is aware of the term's
history in cognitive anthropology.  A quick search finds cites in
anthropological journals back to the '70s, and I'd guess that it dates
back to the '50s.

Regardless of the term's pedigree, it looks like "folksonomy" has indeed
become the preferred buzzword.  The digerati sure love blending...

--Ben Zimmer

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