Folksonomies: how to do things with words on social media
Folksonomy, a portmanteau word for ‘folk taxonomy’, is a term for collaborative tagging: the production of user-created ‘tags’ on social media that help readers to find and sort content. In other words, hashtags: #ThrowbackThursday, #DogLife, #MeToo. Because ordinary people create folksonomy tags, folksonomies include categories devised by small communities, subcultures, or even individuals, not merely those by accepted taxonomic systems like the Dewey Decimal System.
The term first arose in the wake of Web 2.0 – the Web’s transition, in the early 2000s, from a read-only platform to a read-write platform that allows users to comment on and collaboratively tag what they read. Rather unusually, we know the exact date it was coined: 24 July, 2004. The information architect Thomas Vander Wal came up with it in response to a query over what to call this kind of informal social classification.
Perhaps the most visible folksonomies are those on social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, and Instagram. Often, people create tags on these platforms in order to gather under a single tag content that many different users have created, making it easier to find posts related to that tag. (If I’m interested in dogs, I might look at content gathered under the tag #DogLife.) Because tags reflect the interests of people who create them, researchers have pursued ways to use tags to build more comprehensive profiles of users, with an eye to surveillance or to selling them relevant ads.
But people may also use tags as prompts for the creation of new content, not merely the curation of content they would have posted anyway. As I write this post, a trending tag on Twitter, #MakeAHorrorMovieMoreHorrific, is prompting thousands of people to write satirical takes on how classic horror movies might be made more ‘horrifying’ by adding unhappy features of our ordinary lives. (‘I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I Put It on Facebook’; ‘Rosemary’s Baby Is Teething’; ‘The Exercise’)
From a certain perspective, this is not so different from a library’s acknowledgment of a new category of text: if a new academic field, like ‘the history of the book’, catches on, then libraries rearrange their shelves and catalogues to accommodate the history of the book as a category; the new shelf space and catalogue space creates a demand for new books in that category, which encourages authors and publishers to produce new books to meet the demand.
But new folksonomy tags (with important exceptions, as in the realm of activism) are often short-lived and meant to be short-lived, obscure and meant to be obscure. What library cataloguer would think to accommodate the category #glitterhorse, which has a surprising number of posts on Twitter and Instagram? How can Vander Wal’s original definition of folksonomy as a tool for information retrieval accommodate tags that function, not as search terms, but as theatrical asides, like #sorrynotsorry? What about tags that are so narrowly specific that no search could ever turn up more than one usage?
Perhaps the best way to understand the weird things that people do with folksonomy tags is to appeal, not to information science, but to narratology, the study of narrative structures. Traditional narratology recognizes four basic forms of narrative structure: romance, in which we fight against the constraints of the universe and overcome those constraints; tragedy, in which we fight against the constraints of the universe and succumb to those constraints; comedy, in which we fight against the constraints of the universe and then find those constraints to be in harmony with our goals; and satire, which ridicules the notion that experience can be comprehended by an organizing structure of any kind.
Folksonomy tags don’t exactly create narratives, but they do create folksonomy databases – that’s their purpose – and, as media scholars like Katherine Hayles have argued, databases can be productively studied alongside narratives. From a narratological perspective, it would probably be fair to say that most databases are tragic. In their design, the configuration of their user interfaces, the selection of their contents, and the indexes that manage their workings, most databases are limited when set against the full scope of the field of information they seek to map and the knowledge of the people who created them. In creating a database, we fight against the constraints of the universe – the categories we use to sort out the world; the limitations of time and money and technology – and succumb to them.
But folksonomy tagging, especially in its more whimsical variants, renders the database in the mode of satire. Tags that create silly categories, or vanishingly narrow ones, or categories that aren’t really categories at all, tacitly ridicule the notion that a database could include every category that matters to anyone at any time – that the work of organizing the world’s information could ever be complete.
In short, folksonomies differ from other taxonomies not only in the ways in which they are useful, but also in the ways in which they are useless. By making any category that one might imagine available for classification and retrieval, folksonomy tagging allows internet denizens to playfully riff on the dominant ‘symbolic form’ of the digital age: the database. Given the opportunity to create a catalogue for the new Library of Alexandria that constitutes the internet, we find that the genre that best describes the world – at least the world as it’s processed through social media – is satire.