Folksonomies and Architectures of Participation

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in June 2005.

The other day, I was in an advisory board meeting discussing a Web product; the subject of how to let users classify their records came up. There was the usual discussion of the difficulty of creating the right taxonomy. I said "Why not do it as a folksonomy?" The guy running the meeting said "I've never heard that word before, but I know exactly what you're talking about." So it is. Folksonomy is one of those words that's so richly descriptive, you just understand intuitively that it's an ad hoc, user-created taxonomy.

The Web has always had some sites built on what we can call an "architecture of participation." Maybe the best known is Google with its implicit use of the way millions of people build links to create relevance rankings. Another great example is Amazon's lists, reviews, and other participatory features. In both cases, the users of these sites are voluntarily adding value that contributes to both company's bottom lines.

Social software is largely about participation, but recently, a whole new class of Web applications build on participatory architectures has sprung up. One example is Del.icio.us (that's its name and its URL), a Web application that lets you bookmark Web pages online. I know, you're yawning already, but that description hardly does it justice. What makes Del.icio.us so very cool is the way it lets you annotate each page you bookmark with free-form tags, incrementally creating your own folksonomy for the Web as you go.

But that's not all: Everyone else using Del.icio.us is doing exactly the same thing. Del.icio.us aggregates everyone's tags globally so you can go you Del.icio.us/tag/programming, for example, and see all the Web pages that all Del.icio.us users have tagged with the keyword "programming." What emerges is a remarkable "zeitgeist" about the keyword formed from the Web pages that are being associated with it right now.

Del.icio.us isn't the only example of a Web site that let's its users classify things using folksonomies. Another interesting example is the photo sharing site Flickr (www.flickr.com). Flickr allows you to upload your pictures for sharing with your friends. Like Del.icio.us, you tag your photos with free-form keywords and can then conveniently get to all the pictures you've tagged with "Christmas" or "2004" by simply going to those tags. Combining the tags, of course, gives you just the pictures of Christmas from 2004.

Like Del.icio.us, Flickr tags can be used globally to see all the photos that all Flickr members have uploaded and classified with that tag. Flickr has a great way to show the most popular tags too, displaying them using proportional fonts sizes to let you quickly zero in on the tags with the most photos.

Naturally, both Del.icio.us and Flickr offer RSS feeds for tags of individual accounts as well as global tags. Want a convenient way to share photos of the baby with your family? Flickr's RSS feeds are the answer: just tag each photo with "baby" and have your friends subscribe to that RSS feed on your Flickr site. I've used Del.icio.us' RSS feeds to create lists of Web pages for my classes at BYU. Students can subscribe to the RSS feed for the tag I give them and then I just bookmark everything I want them to see on Del.icio.us and it shows up in their feedreader.

If RSS isn't enough, both services also offer HTTP-based APIs so that you can write programs that interact with them. I know people who've used the API to upload and categorize every post on their blogs to Del.icio.us, for example.

A larger example is Technorati's use of tags (www.technorati.com/tags). Unlike Del.icio.us and Flickr, Technorati users don't create tags on the Technorati site directly, they create them by adding the tag as a keyword to their blog posts and Technorati finds them when it crawls the Web. Technorati pulls together blog posts, Del.icio.us bookmarks, and Flickr photos for any given tag on a single page. Technorati even shows you related tags.

If the only way your users can interact with your Web site is to press the "buy button" then you've got your work cut out for you. Architectures of participation require that you rethink your Web design to more completely involve your users. Sometimes, like Google, that participation is implicit, but it's usually easier to think of explicit activities. What Amazon has done isn't rocket science. It's a matter of looking for every opportunity you can find to involve your users, having an agile infrastructure, and being willing to let go of the natural fear you might have of what your user's will do once you empower them. Even so, the rewards can include greater returns to the bottom line and more loyal customers. And who doesn't want that?

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a blog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Monday, 11-Apr-2005 22:33:20 MDT