partial recall

a blog of ideas, links, and musings.

“The Anti-Google”


On Tuesday, Thomas Vander Wal, the person who coined the concept “folksonomy,” came by my summer grad school class with a talk entitled “Designing for the Personal InfoCloud.”

Thomas talked about a variety of topics, but some of the things that struck me revolved around his discussion of folksonomy. Thomas says that he does not like the definition included in Wikipedia because the site allows users to constantly add or remove content to define the concept. He provided us with the following descriptors:


  • Actual vocabulary used for objects in a community and across communities;
  • Network-based selfish bookmarking;
  • Free-tagging;
  • Socially shared; and
  • Externally structuring content

There were a few concepts that clicked in place and resonated with me. First, something clicked when Thomas explained that folksonomy is the “anti-Google.” Essentially, Thomas argued that search tools build algorithms to help you “find what you want.” However, the concept of folksonomies, manifested in collaborative bookmarking tools (such as Flickr,, etc.), help you “find what you don’t know you want.” He explained that while a majority of people might want results that are in the mainstream, folksonomies let users find information that might be in the long-tail:

The Long Tail Effect in Music

Secondly, I really got hung up on the idea that folksonomies involved “selfish bookmarking.” For instance, when my wife bookmarks an article about Apple’s iPod, she might only use the term “ipod” to tag her bookmark, because she only cares about classifying her article so she can find it later. On the other hand, even though I know I can later find the article by searching for “iPod,” I might try to use multiple tags to help others locate my article. I might additionally use the terms “Apple,” “mp3,” “music,” and so on. However, Thomas cuts through this by explaining that if you choose to assist others this way, then this is really your selfish method of bookmarking.

Thomas’ concept really involves no moral, ethical, or “responsibility of the user” argument when it comes to practicing folksonomies. However, as I’ve argued before, for some reason I am stuck on the responsibility of the social tagger. My ideal would be that taggers use multiple tags to describe the content that they choose to bookmark. That way, it becomes easier for other persons to find their content. This does not negate the concept of folksonomies. The social component to this phenomenon is such that we learn to trust others and the tags they use to describe content. Therefore, I still propose that other services that incorporate folksonomies into their systems provide a mechanism for rating taggers on a “trustworthy” scale.

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Alex on July 29, 2005 AT 09 am

Regarding tagging as the “anti-google,” check out Yahoo’s My Web 2.0 at I can’t imagine google is too far behind.. I’d be interested in seeing some sort of hybrid tagging+pagerank search tool.

Rob Fay on July 29, 2005 AT 10 am

Thanks, Alex. I think I’ve bookmarked that site somewhere, but I just haven’t had the time to check it out. I’ll be sure to visit it. By the way, any success with the IOG thing?

Mike on July 29, 2005 AT 02 pm

Very interesting comment. However, I am not sure if this is really “Anti Google” or if Google will just embrace this trend just like Yahoo! is attempting to do with MyWeb2.0.

I agree with your comment that folksonomies are going to have a very significant impact on the way people store, share, and discovery new information. Plus, tagging is very selfish and still works. Lots of people want to use multiple tags just to make finding and retrieving their information much easier going forward. After all, lots of things are associated with different mental notes (i.e. tags).

Given your interest, I tought you might be interested in checking out our site ( Would love to hear from you if you have a chance to check it out.


Rob Fay on July 29, 2005 AT 03 pm


Thanks for your feedback (and the plug for your site – I’ll check it out when I get a chance). I’m sure Google will move this way, but I believe the phrase meant to capture the fact that Google’s search tool is used to retrieve what persons are looking for, not what they are not necessarily looking for. The Long-Tail discussion points to the fact that gems can be found in unlikely places.

Nomad on August 1, 2005 AT 03 pm

Wouldn’t it make more sense (from a human nature standpoint) to use a Google-type conceptual mapping system to be able to know that certain other words are associated with a given topic? For example, it would “know” (from spidering and mining the web) that “Apple” and “MP3” and “DRM” are all commonly associated with iPod and be able to automatically put up additional tags. This allows humans to be “selfish” without putting the onus on the human.

Similarly, if the posting lacks all of the common words that are known about, it would be an indication in the pagerank that it is a tag in bad faith or of a personal vocabulary.

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