Folksonomy: A key aspect of modern information architecture

This post is written as part of my work at DesginLab’s UX Academy. An assignment prompts us to write a post about information architecture. I chose to look at the evolution the concept of folksonomy over time.

Information architecture (IA) is the structural design of shared information or content in the digital landscape, including text, photos, and videos. The concept of IA is considered to have been brought forth by Richard Saul Wurman as early as the 1970s.

IA focuses on solving the basic problems of accessing and using the vast amounts of information available today. This includes organizing and labeling websites so that users can best find what they’re looking for.

Effective IA depends on the interplay between a product’s elements (ontology), the arrangement of its parts (taxonomy), and the interaction among its parts (choreography). The way these manifest over time has varied and evolved. An area that really interests me is something that many of us use daily as users: folksonomy, or tags.

The development of “Folksonomy”

With over 1.2 billion websites online right now, it is clear that the web is a crowded mess of information, and becoming more so at an amazingly rapid pace. Without identification or classification, potentially useful content and information is at risk of being unseen or underutilized. Although IA folks have worked for decades to organize information, realistically, there is much more information out there than they can keep up with.

Eventually, ordinary users took matters into their own hands by beginning to use tags. Del.icio.us is generally recognized of as the one of the first sites where user–generated tagging caught on in the early 2000s. On this site, users organize their bookmarked sites under any category name they choose.

Flickr, a photo management and sharing web application, has a similar system of free-‍form tagging for photos that was influenced by Del.icio.us. Flickr is primarily used by photographers to manage their own images, and the majority of the tags are users tagging photos they created themselves.

By assigning “tags” — identifiers and at times reminders of meaningful information — users unintentionally created a new information organization system: folksonomy. Thomas Vander Wal is the information architect best known for coining the term “folksonomy”, a combination of the words “folk” and “taxonomy.”

Folksonomy today

Folksonomy is a common feature of most social media platforms today and primarily occurs through tagging, or adding metadata information to content (i.e. location). Adding this data helps to improve content visibility and searchability.

Folksonomy has its pros and cons, depending on the platform and how tags are used. On Instagram, hashtags have increasingly helped businesses and individuals gain exposure for their products and talents alike. However, hashtags must be used properly.

Folksonomy can be broad or narrow. Broad folksonomy provides a wealth of related content data and tags (i.e. #fashion), while narrow folksonomy information is more specific and limited (i.e. #chicagomondaystreetfashion). It is important for users to learn which types of hashtags to use.

Twitter is another arena where folksonomy is a major focus. Hashtags on Twitter can be super effective in organizing and searching for information posted on specific topics, events, and campaigns. It is also a tool of really engaging community opinion and conversation around an issue. However, again, hashtags can sometimes be used improperly, misspelled, and contain ambiguous terms and acronyms, which can add to confusion.

The future of folksonomy

Folksonomy does not have uniform rules across the board. For example, some sites allow spaces between tags (like Flickr) while some do not (like Instagram, Twitter, etc). With its many benefits, folksonomy seems to be largely chaotic and constantly being reinvented. Overall, it still seems to be developing and evolving continuously.

Nonetheless, the creation of tags by users themselves has been an innovative way of organizing and bringing useful content and information to light in a world with overwhelming amounts of unorganized information. This has been an important development in information architecture that should be considered and further developed in the future.