February 2, 2007

Folksonomy Coinage and Definition

This page is a static permanent web document. It has been written to provide a place to cite the coinage of folksonomy. This is response the request from many in the academic community to document the circumstances and date of the creation of the term folksonomy. The definition at creation is also part of this document. This document pulls together bits of conversations and ideas I wrote regarding folksonomy on listserves, e-mail, in my blogs and in blog comments on other's sites in 2004.


I have been a fan of ad hoc labeling and tagging systems since at least the late 1980s after watching a co-worker work his magic with Lotus Magellan (he would add his own ad hoc keywords or tags to the documents on his hard drive, paying particular attention to add these tags to documents others created so to add his context). In the 1990s people could add keywords to documents and objects they submitted to Compuserve forum libraries and the Sysop would aim to keep their words while adding relevant terms from a controlled vocabulary. In the late 1990s and 2000 tagging services, like Bitzi came to the web and provided volunteer contributed tags and descriptions. Bitzi was less than perfect and it did not have a means to understand the definition the contributer used.

In 2003 was started by Joshua Schacter and it included identity in its social bookmarking. This identity element started to remove the problems that Bitzi had with definitions. allows one to see the identity that created the tag as well as see other things that person has used that tag on.

Not long after, Flickr (a social photo sharing site) started including tags while it was still early in its product development. These tools were causing quite a stir on many of the information science list serves as the tagging seemed to be working for finding things, more from exploration and serendipity than through searching and intent.

Creation of Folksonomy Term

On July 23, 2004 in the IA Institute (then called the Asylomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIFIA)) closed list serve Gene Smith asked, "Some of you might have noticed services like Furl, Flickr and using user-defined labels or tags to organize and share information.... Is there a name for this kind of informal social classification?". After a few other people answered some other related questions Eric Scheid of Ironclad Information Architecture responded with "folk classification".

On July 24, 2004 I responded just after that with, "So the user-created bottom-up categorical structure development with an emergent thesaurus would become a Folksonomy?".

I am a fan of the word folk when talking about regular people. Eric put my mind in the framework with one of my favorite terms. I was also thinking that if you took "tax" (the work portion) of taxonomy and replaced it with something anybody could do you would get a folksonomy. I knew the etymology of this word was pulling is two parts from different core sources (Germanic and Greek), but that seemed fitting looking at the early Flickr and

On August 3, 2004 Gene Smith posted in his blog Folksonomy: Social Classification. This blog post received a lot of traffic and opened up the term folksonomy for others outside the closed IA listserve.

Definition of Folksonomy

Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one's own retrieval. The tagging is done in a social environment (usually shared and open to others). Folksonomy is created from the act of tagging by the person consuming the information.

The value in this external tagging is derived from people using their own vocabulary and adding explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding of the information/object. People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding.

In a few conversations around folksonomy and tagging in 2004 I stated, "folksonomy is tagging that works". This is still a strong belief the three tenets of a folksonomy: 1) tag; 2) object being tagged; and 3) identity, are core to disambiguation of tag terms and provide for a rich understanding of the object being tagged.

By: Thomas Vander Wal
On: 2 February 2007

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