What Is Folksonomy?

Beetle collection

Ismael Montero Verdu/Getty Images

A folksonomy is a classification system determined by everyday people. It's like a taxonomy, only with "folks." To understand this further, let's first understand what a taxonomy is. 

A taxonomy is a scheme for organizing and classifying information, objects, life forms, and other items. The field of biology is well known for developing an extensive taxonomy. For example, the dung beetle would belong to a taxonomy:

  • Kingdom: Animals 
    • Phylum: Arthropods (invertebrates like spiders, crabs, and insects)
      • Subphylum: Hexapods (six-legged) 
        • Class: Insects 
          • Order: Beetles
            • Suborder: Water, Rove, Scarab, Long-horned, Leaf and Snout Beetles
              • Superfamily: Scarab, Stag and Bess Beetles
                • Family: Scarab Beetles
                  • Subfamily: Dung beetles

Or if you use scientific terminology it would look more like this:

  • Kingdom Animalia 
    • Phylum Arthropoda
      • Class Insecta
        • Order Coleoptera
          • Suborder Polyphaga
            • Superfamily Scarabaeoidea
              • Family Scarabaeidae 
                • Subfamily Scarabaeine 

Using a taxonomy like this enables biologists to know precisely which bug you mean when you name it, and it enables them to search for related bugs and animals. Likewise, the Dewey Decimal System is a taxonomy for information. The numbers in the Dewey system start general and get more specific, dividing each subject into 10 subcategories. A book about dung beetles would be classified this way:

  • 500: Natural sciences 
    • 590: Zoological sciences
      • 595: Invertebrates
        • 595.7: Insects
          • 595.76: Beetles 

And so on. Dewey is the best-known information classification system, but it isn't the only library taxonomy. The Library of Congress has a separate system, for example, and many specialized libraries use their own taxonomy. 

Taxonomies are useful, but ultimately they're arbitrary markers that people introduce to make sense of the world, which brings us to a folksonomy. While taxonomies are created by specialists and are very rigid in their classification schemes (a butterfly is not in the same family as a beetle, it is not a moth, and wing shape is more important to classify a butterfly than color), a folksonomy is created by ordinary people and can be very flexible. 

For example, you might classify a dung beetle as a bug, an insect, a creepy-crawly, or a scarab. You might group "bugs" into biting or non-biting categories or by geographic location. All of those are acceptable in folksonomy, even if they would not work within a taxonomy system. 

Another word for folksonomy is tagging

In folksonomy organization, you rely on this personal tagging to organize information. For example, users may tag their photos in photo albums with names of people in the photo, the place where the photo was taken, the occasion of the photo, or the emotional mood of the people in the photo. Pinterest uses folksonomy organization because users pin their bookmarks to user-named boards in order to organize them. 

Why would Google care about folksonomy? Aside from some folksonomy classification in tools like Google Photos and Blogger, the concept is important for making a search engine that understands how humans think. By tagging a photo or another piece of information, we give Google and other search engines insights into our internal taxonomies. 

Also Known As: tagging, social bookmarking