A Trouble with Folksonomies

Had an informal presentation today about folksonomies. A lot has been said about them recently, and I don’t think anyone’s thinking of them as really serious tools to rival more traditional systems or techniques, but some things that came to mind about the long term future started with that Killing Joke track.

“Requiem” contains the following lyric:*

And the meaning of words;
When they cease to function;
When there's nothing to say;
When will it start worrying you?

I’ve always played the banjo, and would class my picking style as “frailing”, but many others would call it “clawhammer.” There’s no clear definition of either, and some think they are in fact the same thing, but there’s often disagreement.

It strikes me that that the utility of folksonomies depends a lot on the “received meaning” of terms, but it’s always been a mystery to me as to how we as humans actually come to that meaning individually. I can’t remember how or when I first learnt what “probity” meant, or what the difference is between the meaning of “accuracy” and “precision.” My grandfather understood the word “gay” as having a completely different meaning to what it does now. Indeed, it current has at least three separate meanings to my knowledge (“happy,” “homosexual,” and “disagreeable”).

To me, this is another reason why folksonomies as truly useful tools in their own right are doomed unless they act as supplements to existing classification systems.


* Ironically, these lyrics are disputed, since Jaz Coleman usually just made up stuff on the fly during takes, and often quite radically changed the meaning of songs live or in later recordings.