I had a long conversation with my long time friend James yesterday. We spent some time chatting about a link I sent to him via del.icio.us, which posited that social bookmarking is essentially broken. I like the kind of analysis the author provides - it's nice to see someone thinking about a problem, so I promptly commented on the blog, noted that for future reference, and sent it to James.
Unlike James, I like to write my blogs in narrative form. For me it's just more fun. If you read through his blog you'll see that he spends a lot of time carefully crafting well written, instructive and informative entries. I see the value in it - I write emails that way sometimes (and should do it more often) but my personal preference is to tell a story. My (rambling) point is, if you re-read the entry paragraph, there's actually some interesting information I purposely hid to see if you picked up on it the first time 'round. By now you've found it no doubt, so let's point it out.
I said: "noted that for future reference" and "sent it to James."
Those are actually two distinct actions that I took, and I used del.iciou.us for both. Getting back to the title of this post, that's just the tip of the iceberg. But let's start there, because it's farther than most people take del.iciou.us on any given day.
Action 1: noted that for future reference
I actually stored a reminder for myself on del.iciou.us using a tag called "commented". This is an action tag, it's something I have done. I'll get to the difference between an action tag, and a classification tag in a minute. For now you just need to know that "commented" means that I made a comment somewhere - a blog, a forum, etc.
Action 2: sent it to James
I sent the link to James using the built-in "for:
What's a Folksonomy, and why do I care?
First, we need to understand a little bit about what exactly is del.icio.us.
Everyone and their brother that uses del.icio.us today is familiar with using it as a classification system. Looking at the list of popular tags on del.iciou.us, they are primarily of the type that adds meta-data about the target link that relates to what the tagger thinks that link is. That's classification. It's what biologists do when they talk about a certain Monkey belonging in a particular Species, Genus, Family, Order etc. The difference between a biological taxonomy and a tag taxonomy (or more precisely, folksonomy) is that a traditional taxonomy has well-defined rules, definitions and categories to place things. It's often hierarchical, as in the case of biology, and it is rigid and doesn't change much. Folksonomies are flexible, and don't follow well-defined rules, they depend on emergent behavior to derive value. The del.iciou.us popular tags link shows you what people think of the web.
But we can be more rigid about our folksonomy, (there aren't any rules which means I am free to make up my own, right?), in fact what I propose is that there is in fact very strong similarities to these activities of classification, and they all fall into a just one part of a larger taxonomy of folksonomies. That part is the "classifying" part. They aren't adding any data about their relationship to the link (e.g. I am the author, I commented on it, it makes me feel warm, I like it, I hate it, etc.) and they aren't associating any actionable items with those links either.
To put it another way, it seems everyone on del.icio.us is busy classifying data according to what they think it is, because the particular part of the folksonomy they see themselves in is just the "classification" part. It's as if you let a horde of botanists free in a field full of flowers, all of the same Genus, and let them start coming up with Species on their own, no matter who stumbled on what and then tried to sort out all of the data later (the current theory being that a majority of the botanists would converge on a given answer for each specie).
But there are so many other kinds of meta-data that can be associated with a link, that I think del.icio.us, and the folksonomy community at large, is missing out on the big picture. Let me try to illustrate it better:
What else can I do with link meta-data? The bigger picture
Let me suggest a rudimentary "higher-order" taxonomy which is super-imposed on smaller order folksonomies. In this way we can begin to extract some useful, and interesting, new ways to use the meta-data being collected by the masses:
+ Link Meta-Data Taxonomy
- Classification Folksonomy (e.g. tutorial, howto, tip, webdesign, etc.)
- Relational Folksonomy (e.g. authored, commented, etc.)
- Actional Folksonomy (e.g. forterracotta)
The first one is pretty obvious, it's how everyone uses del.iciou.us today. The goal here is to try to describe what the content of the link is. So if it's a tutorial on web design practices, you might tag the link as "tutorial webdesign".
Less well known. Describe how you are related to, or see your relationship with, the link. If you wrote it, you might tag it with "didauthor". If you commented on it, you might use "didcomment". James suggested the use of "didxxx" which I like because it tells me right away that this is a relational tag, not a classification tag.
I've not seen much of these around. We use them for our buzz system on http://www.terracotta.org which I blogged about in detail several months back. The basic strategy here is to use tags that indicate to other tools scraping your data how to view the link. So, in the context of the buzz engine, if I encounter a link on the web that is buzz worthy, I simply tag it "forterracotta" and it pops out on the Terracotta .org site. Similary, I filter important links into my Google homepage via an RSS widget for del.icio.us by tagging them with a combination of "my startpage". This means I want my iGoogle page to show the particular set of links tagged with "my" and "startpage" to show on my Google startpage.
The title of this post is "the tip of the iceberg". I highly doubt that the taxonomy of folksonomies is limited to just three categories. I'd love to see this idea pushed forward, to find more interesting and creative uses for meta-data about the web. Del.icio.us is a start, but I suspect we will look back on it in 5 years and find it horribly primitive.