The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Social Tagging

Third Commentary by Dilip Verma

Social Tagging

Many popular web based applications are described as belonging to the Web 2.0. Alexander (2008) suggests that what defines Web 2.0 software is that it permits social networking, microcontent and social filtering. Users participate in the Web 2.0 by making small contributions that they link to the works of other contributors to form part of a participative discourse based on sharing. In social filtering, “creators comment on other’s creations, allowing readers to triangulate between primary and secondary sources.” (Alexander, 2008). One of the offspring of this new cooperative form of literacy is the creation of Folksonomies.

Folksonomies are user-defined vocabularies used as metadata for the classification of Web 2.0 content. Users and producers voluntarily add key words to their microcontent. There are no restrictions on these tags, though programs often make suggestions by showing the most commonly previously used tags. Folksonomies (also known as ethnoclassification) represent an important break with the traditional forms of information classification systems. This technology is still in its infancy; presently it is used for the categorizing of photos in Flickr, of Web pages in and of blog content in Technorati. However, its use is sure to spread as the Web 2.0 gains popularity.

Berner- Lee, designed the Web to allow people to share documents using standard protocols. His proposal for the Semantic Web (see video) is that raw data should now be made shareable both between web programs and between users. At the moment social tagging is program specific. There is no reason to assume that it will or should remain this way. For tags to be readable by different programs, they will require a common structure. A system whereby tags can be shared and analyzed across applications is possible by creating an ontology of tags. This ontology will merely be a standard of metadata that records more than just the tag word applied to an object. Gruber (2007) proposes a structure for the metadata including information on the tag, the tagger, and the source. In this way tags will be transferable and searchable across the Web, making them a much more powerful technology.

Standard classification systems are structured from the top down. Professionals carefully break down knowledge into categories and build a vocabulary, which can then be used to hierarchically categorize information. Traditionally, categorizing is a labor-intensive, highly skilled process reserved for professionals. It also requires users to buy into a culturally defined way of knowing. Social tagging is the creation of metadata not by professionals (e.g. librarians or catalogers), but by the authors and users of microcontent. The tags are used both as an individual form of organizing as well as for sharing the microcontent within a community (Mathes, 2004).

Weinberger (2007) divides organizational systems into three orders, defining the third order as a system where information is digital and metadata is added by users rather than professionals. Apart from the physical advantages of storing information digitally, the author sees that this change in the creation of metadata will “undermine some of our most deeply ingrained ways of thinking about the world and our knowledge of it.” Weinberger (2007) sees tagging as empowering, as it lets users define meaning by forming their own relationships rather than having categories imposed upon them. “It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and -perhaps more important- who we think has the authority to tell us so.” (Weinberger,2007, ¶ 48). Mathes notes that “the users of a system are negotiating the meaning of the terms in the Folksonomy, whether purposefully or not, through their individual choices of tags to describe documents for themselves” (2004, ¶ 46). In Folksonomies, the creation of meaning lies firmly on the shoulders of the user.

The interesting thing about social tagging is that a consensus of meaning is naturally formed. “As contributors tag, they have access to tags from other readers, which often influence their own choice of tags” (Alexander, 2008, p. 154). Udell notes that “the real power emerges when you expand the scope to include all items, from all users, that match your tag. Again, that view might not be what you expected. In that case, you can adapt to the group norm, keep your tag in a bid to influence the group norm, or both” (2004, ¶ 5). Folksonomies are organic as they develop naturally through voluntary contributions. Traditionally, society defines the “set of appropriate criteria” by which things may be categorized (Weinberger, 2007, ¶ 6). But Folksonomies should allow us “to get rid of the idea that there’s a best way of organizing the world” (Weinberger, 2007, ¶ 7).

However, Boyd raises some concerns about who is forming this consensus and its influence on power relations. The author notes that “most of the people tagging things have some form of shared cultural understandings” (2005, ¶ 3) and that these people are ” very homogenous” (2005, ¶ 3). The author adds that “we must think through issues of legitimacy and power. How are our collective choices enforcing hegemonic uses of language that may marginalize?” (2005, ¶ 7). At the moment the use of tags is restricted to a small homogenous group. This is representative of the wider problem of the globalizing influence of a web dominated by “a celebration of the “Californian ideology”” (Boshier & Chia, 1999). The consensus formed in Folksonomies will be representative of only a small sector of the population. To address this requires providing access and a voice in the Web 2.0 discourse to minorities. If user defined tags become the standard for metadata on the Web 2.0, it is important that all groups take part in the forming of the consensus. Without access for marginalized communities, Folksonomies will not achieve their true liberating potential.


Alexander, B. (2008). Web 2.0 and Emergent Multiliteracies. Theory into Practice, 47(2), 150-160. Retrieved November 20, 2009 from

Boyd, D. (2005). Issues of Culture in Ethnoclassification/Folksonomy. Retrieved November 26, 2009, from Corante Web Site:

Boshier, R. & Chia, M. O.(1999) Discursive Constructions Of Web Learning And Education: “World Wide” And “Open?” Proceedings of the Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning Retrieved November 15 from

Gruber, T. (2007). Ontology of Folksonomy: A Mash-up of Apples and Oranges. Int’l Journal on Semantic Web & Information Systems, 3(2). Retrieved November 27, 2009 from

Mathes, A. (2004). Folksonomies-Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata. Retrieved November 26, 2009 from

Udell, J. (2004). Collaborative Knowledge Gardening. Retrieved November 25, 2009, from InfoWorld Web Site:

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books. Retrieved November 26, 2009 from


1 peg. { 11.29.09 at 6:19 pm }

Thanks for the great read, Dilip. As a librarian, I’m quite interested in folksonomies. As you can imagine they divide libraryland. I embrace tagging, but still hold a structured vocabulary dear to my heart – plus I still see a need for it. We switched to Evergreen for our new catalogue and it allows tagging which is great for access beyond what the ACCR2 permits.
I do find it funny though that the most used tag on Flickr (at least up until 2008 research) was “me”. I am puzzled how that improves findability and access:)

2 Clare Roche { 11.30.09 at 7:32 pm }

I am glad you have thought about those on the other side of the digital divide.

3 Natalie Giesbrecht { 12.02.09 at 6:59 pm }

Hi Dilip,

If you haven’t taken it already, I highly suggest you take ETEC565 – there is lots of opportunity to engage with Web 2.0 tools in this course.

Your points about tagging being based on common cultural understandings is something I hadn’t given much thought to before. What I did recognize earlier in this course though is that tags used on this blog aren’t always relevant or meaningful to others in the class. I am thinking that having a common understanding of key words and what types of words to use in tags really becomes part of digital literacy.


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