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Folksonomy vs. the Desktop Metaphor

by David Sturtz

With all the discussion of folksonomies, and especially tags, I’ve heard little said about the significant change in mindset that this form of categorization represents. It is only very recently in the history of personal computers that the conceptual shift has begun to swing away from strict hierarchical folder structures where a digital file shared the proprety of a physical object that prevents it from being in more than one place at a time.

While I’m certain there are earlier examples, I think that Apple’s iApps (iTunes and iPhoto specifically) have broken through that wall. Images no longer have to belong to only one album, songs dynamically appear on multiple playlists.

Google’s Gmail has done the same for e-mail. Rather than using folders to organize mail, messages can be automatically assigned tags which can be used for viewing and finding groups of messages. Many tags can be assigned to one message, the document no longer has to be placed in a single folder.

Mac OS 10.4 Tiger’s Spotlight feature promises to extend this flexibility to the desktop:

Smart Folders contain files grouped together based on search criteria instead of physical location, so the same file can appear in multiple Smart Folders without moving from its original saved location on your system. No need to duplicate, shift or update files: Spotlight Smart Folders keep everything organized for you.

The unique additional benefit we are seeing is that since one item can be “filed” in unlimited categories at once, tags support a natural, democratic system for organizing content. There is less of a need to fight over which is the “correct” categorization for an item, as long as the tags are useful to some group of users and causes no harm to the other groups (more about when that happens here).

This whole shift leaves me with a few questions with regard to user’s understanding of how this functions, foremost: Are people able to make the jump from static organizations schemes to dynamic grouping?

Next entry: Vannevar Bush, Kottke, and Professional Trail Blazing


David Tebbutt | March 8, 2005 3:27 AM

“While I’m certain there are earlier examples,”

Yep. A core element of BrainStorm (invented in 1981 and still publishing today) was that the same information existed in different contexts. Its ‘namesaking’ automatically hyperlinks multiple occurrences of the same information item.

The links can be prevented/broken if need be. If they’re not then all the deeper level contextual information is on tap to all occurrences of the same term, phrase, sentence, paragraph.