Noah Brier | January 25, 2023

The Folksonomy Edition

On organization, tagging, and the changing ways we file away data

Noah here. Twenty years ago this coming September, the social bookmarking site launched (I’m impressed I still remember where the periods go). The conceit was pretty simple: instead of saving bookmarks to your browser, save them to the web and make them public. You could subscribe to the saved links of others, and generally, it was a fantastic place to discover interesting internet stuff. But what really made it work was tagging. Instead of providing a rigid taxonomy, users could “tag” their links with whatever made sense, and the system would then allow you to explore and subscribe to others with that tag.

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Tagging was the precursor to hashtags and became a widely adopted part of Web 2.0 design. ( was the first I remember doing it, but I’m hardly an internet historian, so feel free to correct me.)

Amongst the particularly nerdy (of which I count myself), this approach became known as a “folksonomy.” Here’s how Thomas Vander Wal, who coined the term, describes it:

Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one's own retrieval. The tagging is done in a social environment (usually shared and open to others). Folksonomy is created from the act of tagging by the person consuming the information.

The value in this external tagging is derived from people using their own vocabulary and adding explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding of the information/object. People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding.

Why is this interesting?

For as long as we’ve had information, we’ve been trying to figure out the best ways to organize it. Card catalogs, file cabinets, and computer folders are all attempts to push order on our otherwise unwieldy data. 

Famously, when Gmail came along, Google told us to stop trying to organize (and delete) our email and instead just rely on search to find what we’re looking for. Broadly I’d say that approach has worked well, and in the vast majority of cases, I err on the side of risking losing track of something later instead of spending the time to organize it now.

The flip side of that trade, of course, is algorithms. In giving up the act of organizing, we’ve ceded much of our control to whatever the machine thinks would be best for us. Alexandra Samuel had a good piece on tagging for JSTOR Daily in 2019. It included this bit on what could have been with tagging:

When we fret about the perils of an algorithm-driven society, tagging represents the road not taken. It was a technology that supported decentralized content creation and community, rather than the limited number of centralized social networking sites that house the majority of online conversation today. It was an approach in which everyone added a little bit of value—for instance, in the form of tags that provided context and made content findable (and not as a way to self-promote, but just because it was easy and helpful). It was a form of conversation that centered content and ideas, not celebrities and influence: You might connect with someone who regularly used the same tags that you did, but that was because they shared your interests, not because they had X thousand followers.

I’m not sure I’m quite that nostalgic for tagging, but I agree it represents an interesting hypothetical. This all seems particularly relevant as more and more folks explore AI. Once again, it feels like we’re looking at a phase shift in how we organize information—away from keyword search and closer to something that can infer connections intelligently. The tech for that is already here and pretty impressive (I wrote a bit about how I used embeddings to create natural language search in a recent project), and it’s just a matter of time until we see it in more of our systems, I suspect. (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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