Alex Wright

Folksonomies redux

September 7, 2004

There's been some follow-up discussion on folksonomies (cf. my earlier post) by Peter, Clay, Victor, and Jon, and what I believe is a related thread about Wikipedia vs. traditional Encyclopedias by Joi, Matt and Cory.

Both discussions seem to boil down to a few common themes: networked vs. hierarchical systems, authority vs. autonomy, and power laws.

Networked information environments like Wikipedia and folksonomies share the advantages of self-organizing systems: fluidity, resilience and autonomy. Hierarchical systems like the Encyclopedia Brittanica and traditional controlled vocabularies share the top-down virtues of fixity, reliability and authority - a quality that, as Matt points out, emerges not by popular vote but as "a slippery, socially-constructed thing conferred over time."

Or as Darwin put it, �The old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.�

What irks me about some of the dialogue to date is an assumption (usually implied) that networked systems are somehow inherently more "fair" than top-down systems. Democracy, like unregulated free markets, are no guarantee of fairness. And while networked systems surely give users more opportunity for input, they also abide by power laws which, though perhaps ineluctable, are neither equal nor fair (especially insofar as they favor early adopters). Top-down systems, while seemingly authoritarian, may paradoxically do a better job of defending the interests of the individual. Just as mob rule is no way to run a country, so purely democratic classifications could lead lead to groupthink, favoring conformity and marginalizing dissent.

But again, I don't believe that top-down and bottom-up systems necessarily have to stand in opposition; the two models may ultimately prove consilient. As Kevin Kelly put it, way back in 1994:

In the human management of distributed control, hierarchies of a certain type will proliferate rather than diminish. That goes especially for distributed systems involving human nodes - such as huge global computer networks. Many computer activists preach a new era in the network economy, an era built around computer peer-to-peer networks, a time when rigid patriarchal networks will wither away. They are right and wrong. While authoritarian "top-down" hierarchies will retreat, no distributed system can survive long without nested hierarchies of lateral "bottom-up" control. As influence flows peer to peer, it coheres into a chunk - a whole organelle - which then becomes the bottom unit in a larger web of slower actions. Over time a multi-level organization forms around the percolating-up control: fast at the bottom, slow at the top." Fast at the bottom, slow at the top: that sounds about right to me.

File under: Semantic Web

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