Economics of Taxonomies

In his latest post on folksonomies, Clay argues that we have no choice about moving to folksonomies, because of the economics. I’d like to tackle those economics a bit.

(Some background: There was recently a fascinating exchange between Clay Shirky and Louis Rosenfeld on the subject of taxonomies versus “folksonomies,” lightwieght, uncontrolled terms that users attach to things as classification. Now, as the name of my blog implies, I’m all in favor of such emergent and chaotic phenomenon as folksonomies. At the same time, some of the work I’m doing may involve the creation of a taxonomy. Worse, its a taxonomy where the items being classified are subject to a great many potential classifications, and really, a folksonomy may well be a better choice. So how to decide where to go?)

I don’t think that there is a single economics of taxonomies. We could compare effort of creation to effort of use. Flickr users create a folksonomy because its trivial to create, and the work needed to use it for tagging is also low. In contrast, the Linean taxonomy of life is the subject of a huge amount of work.
Once you’ve learned to use both Flickr and the plethora of modern library systems to search, the effort to search the Flickr site is higher than the effort to search in a library. So Flickr (and perhaps all folksonomies) offload costs from classifiers to searchers.

There’s also an economic question of the cost of failure. Flickr is not there to help you find precisely the photo you’re looking for, nor the paper or book you mean to find. It’s there to make surfing easier. If you want to see specific people’s photos, you can subscribe to their site. So the folksonomy works where there’s a very low cost of not seeing a result. Does it work as well where the costs are higher? If you’re searching for a specific book in a library, and can’t guess the tags attached to it, you can fall back to other, organized search criteria. I’m finding it hard to quantify the search failure costs here, because moving from photos to say, reference specimens of butterflys, that specimen, and its name, act as an index into all sorts of scientific work.

Another tension is speed of change. Fast changing taxa are hard to search, but easy to create. Is it worthwhile to spend the effort to enable effective searching? To whom is it worthwhile?

To relate this back to the work I’m doing, I think that the cost of failed searches may be very high. High enough to dominate? Unclear.