Distributed knowledge: can MOOCs learn from folksonomies?

Back in the day when I was getting my librarianship qualification, I did some research on folksonomies. My project was to explore how folksonomies and traditional classification schemes describe the same books on LGBT history, and to see if, and how, this destabilised knowledge. When I was reading Stewart’s article about MOOCs earlier today, I was struck by a point of cautious convergence between her comments about MOOCs and new literacies, and what I remember learning about folksonomies.

There’s a brilliant article by Clay Shirky called ‘Ontology is Overrated’. It’s a bit librarianly, and it talks a lot about some of the ways in which classification schemes are outdated and even a little insidious in places. But it’s a good read. Shirky presents folksonomy, or social, user-generated tagging, as antagonistic to traditional, top-down classification of knowledge.

if you’ve got a large, ill-defined corpus, if you’ve got naive users, if your cataloguers aren’t expert, if there’s no one to say authoritatively what’s going on, then ontology is going to be a bad strategy

For Shirky, this is in particular a baaaaaaaad fit for the digital world. When you need to organise knowledge, especially knowledge contained in or packaged in digital formats, you’ll struggle to do this alongside traditional ontologies. Come in Dewey Decimal, your time is up.

Folksonomy allows, in theory, for the organisation of knowledge to develop along desire lines. Tags are freeform and uncontrolled, so knowledge is organised on the fly in ways that are authentic, shifting, contemporary. Tags are inclusive and democratic, giving equal weight to long tail interests and to cultural assignations. Folksonomy is a project committed to the fundamental distribution of the organisation of knowledge. Or so the argument goes.

Stewart contends, quite sensibly, that MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new literacies. One of the ways in which it may do this is in distributing expertise. The massiveness of MOOCs radically adapts the relationship between teacher and student. It decentres the teacher, no longer seen as the ‘knower’, and reshapes the learner’s role so that they must be less passive and more active in their learning. MOOCs implicitly foster and place a high value on collaborative, collective intelligence and knowledge.

These two developments – the organisation of knowledge via folksonomy, and the reorganisation of the teaching of knowledge via the MOOC – strike me as fairly similar. There’s a redistribution of power, a re-levelling of knowledge, a democratic shift in the locus of information and expertise, and a flattening of hierarchies.

However, studies of folksonomy¬†in situ, particularly of dear departed websites like Delicious and Diigo where tagging was really popular, sort of demonstrate the failure of the project, at least from the perspective of knowledge organisation. They found that folksonomies were imprecise, inexact, and ambiguous. The lack of control over spelling, the cultural implications, the chaos and unpredictability and the over-personalisation of tags undermined their trustworthiness. The tags used obscured the long-tail, and they followed a power law. Just like traditional systems of classification, there was still a need for an ‘authority’. It’s just that, now, that authority was user-generated and unaccountable.

These were fairly old studies of folksonomy, so perhaps times have changed. I hope so. But I do think there might be a warning here to the MOOC, particuarly in terms of the redistribution of knowledge. The massiveness of the MOOC necessarily decentres expertise. It restructures where that expertise might lie, and it fundamentally destabilises who might be perceived as an expert, and who might be an expert. But what it can’t do is to remove the need for an expert altogether, nor can it eliminate the need for that expertise to be earned, to be accorded in some way, to be accountable in some way. It may not belong to the teacher alone, but there still need to be some condition over what it is, and who owns it.


Guy, M., & Tonkin, E. (2006). Folksonomies: Tidying up Tags? D-Lib Magazine, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1045/january2006-guy
Hammond, T., Hannay, T., Lund, B., & Scott, J. (2005). Social Bookmarking Tools (I): A General Review. D-Lib Magazine, 11(04). https://doi.org/10.1045/april2005-hammond
Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags. Retrieved 11 February 2017, from http://bit.ly/1p97ISy¬†
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.