I’m still mulling over Helen Longino’s criteria for objectivity in scientific enquiry (see previous post: Science as Social Knowledge) and it occurred to me that folksonomies are not really open and democratic, but are actually obscure and impenetrable. The “viewpoint” of any given folksonomy might be an averaged out majority consensus or some other way of aggregating tags might have been used, and so you can’t tell if it is skewed by a numerically small but prolifically tagging group. This is the point Judith Simon made in relation to ratings and review software systems at the ISKO conference, but it seems to me the problem for folksonomies is even worse, because of the echo chamber effect of people amplifying popular tags. Without some way of showing who is tagging what and why, the viewpoint expressed in the folksonomy is a mystery. This is not necessarily the case, but I think you’d need to collect huge amounts of data from every tagger, then database it along with the tags, then run all sorts of analyses and publish them in order to show the background assumptions driving the majority tags.

If the folksonomic tags don’t help you find things, who could you complain to? How do you work out whether it doesn’t help you because you are a minority, or for some other reason? With a taxonomy, the structure is open – you may not like it but you can see what it is – and there will usually be someone “in charge” who you can challenge and criticise if you think your perspective has been overlooked. In many case the process of construction will be known too. I don’t see an obvious way of challenging or criticising a folksonomy in this way, so presumably it fails Longino’s criteria for objectivity.

You can just stick your own tags into a folksonomy and use them yourself so there is some trace of your viewpoint in there, but if the rest of the folksonomy doesn’t help you search, that means you can only find things once you have tagged them yourself, which would presumably rule out large content repositories. So, you have to learn and live with the imposed system – just like with a taxonomy – but it’s never quite clear exactly what that system is.