Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Folksonomy, Folktology, Language Games & Pinterest

Dan Doney likes to talk about folksonomies.  I give him the credit for bringing the term into my more recent conversations, although it has been around at least 10 years in the knowledge management circles.  Essentially, a folksonomy is a taxonomy managed by folks (read: the crowd), and became a thing in the hay day of via its social bookmarking feature.  Group tagging of photos on Facebook doesn’t impress anyone anymore, but we still have massive information management challenges that this basic capability serves to address, namely that the crowd (given the correct problem and correct crowd, i.e. Waze), has a vested interest to collaborate in organizing the information to solve the problem. (I always like to emphasize that these arrangements depend heavily on a smart understanding of the crowd and the problem.  You have to clearly articulate the value proposition to the crowd and have a strong understanding of what they really want in order to make it work.)

Recently I read this rather old blog post from 2005 about the concept of folktologies, drawing a distinction with folksonomies. The fact that both words still get the red squiggly spell check line under them tells you that the concepts might be more important than the words themselves. The last paragraph of the blog post jumped out at me:

Imagine a folksonomy combined with an ontology — a “folktology.” In a folktology, users could instantly propose or modify ontological classes and properties in the same manner that they do with tags in tagging systems. The most popular ontological constructs … would “rise to the top” and self-amplify, while the less-instantiated ones would “fall to the bottom” over time. In this way an emergent, self-organizing, and self-pruning ontology could emerge within a community. Such a system would have the ease and adaptability of a folksonomy plus the semantic richness and formal structure of an ontology.”

I immediately thought of how Pinterest boards have become just that: ontological classes organized in an endless, collective human imagination.  What is so interesting is that each board, once organized, becomes its own linguistic context.  Once I discover a board I like, the category makes sense to me as the unifying theme. The name of that Pinterest board on the other hand, might not have occurred to me, or even worked as a search term in an older search model.

This, in turn, reminded me of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writings in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge and specifically his assertions about “language games”.  Language games, according to Lyotard, are the multiplicity of communities of meaning, and the innumerable systems in which meanings are produced  (that his assertions were about the inability to make assertions is a subject for another time).  Lyotard was writing in response to Wittgenstein, who explained language games thus:

“We can also think of the whole process of using words in as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games ‘language-games’ and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game. And the processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.” –“Language-games” from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

Not to get too far down in the weeds with philology nerdery, but my point with all of this is that the concept of folktology allows each person to create their own language game, to a certain extent, and allow others to participate. People organize around information, and also organize information around themselves.  In the process, we create new linguistic contexts / new folktologies.  Pinterest does it well.  I look forward to seeing what other platforms will in the future.


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