On the back of a couple of Twitter conversations recently and borrowing my brother’s ipod (other MP3 players are available…), I have been thinking more about taxonomy and its bastard sibling, “folksonomy”.
A taxonomy is formal, top-down and rigid; a folksonomy is informal, bottom-up and flexible. Clearly, both have their uses – to identify books in a library one needs a common (and hence inflexible) system of classification – a taxonomy like the Dewey decimal classification, but to find books at home one might use a more manageable system (like/keep/recycle, perhaps).
The system you choose depends a lot on what your uses are.
In biological taxonomy, there is often a battle between lumpers and splitters: since the classification is a human construct (albeit one that aims to follow natural divisions), whether a population of organisms is a variety or subspecies or species is up for debate.
Splitters tend to argue that different types are separate; lumpers tend to minimise the differences. As an example, I used to work on bracken (many, many years ago!); back then, it was considered to be a single species with two sub-species and twelve varieties – all lumped together, in other words; I believed that now these had been split into two species and twelve sub-species – but I was wrong: the accepted taxonomy of bracken is that it consists of up to twelve separate species. In this case, the splitters have won.
Looking at my brother’s iPod, I saw that he is a splitter; I on the other hand seem to be a radical lumper. We classify the music on our players very differently, using the folksonomy. The genre field of the ipod database is where I noticed this. My brother uses hundreds of different genre – separating jazz, for instance, by time and location (“1960s West Coast Jazz”, “1970s UK Jazz”, and so on).
I use four different genre, reckoning that all my music can be classified by just jazz, rock, classical and folk. I tried to get it down to three, but however hard I tried I couldn’t pretend that a couple of the “folk” artists could be put into “rock”.
Whilst this reflects our outlooks – I would have problems trying to classify artists down to too much detail (would Dave Holland or John McLaughlin [warning – launches music!] be UK or US jazz? And is it jazz or fusion? Or jazz-rock?) – it also stems from the different ways we use our players.
I either know exactly what I want to listen to – in which case I will find the artist and the recording – or I play music on shuffle (by album), in which case I want a broad sample to choose from. I know the broad genre I’m interested in – jazz, rock or classical – and then I shuffle through albums until something grabs me.
My brother doesn’t shuffle at all: he uses the genre field to locate what he wants to listen to.
There are lessons in this familial divergence. The kind of classification used – whether a top-down taxonomy or a bottom-up or user-created folksonomy, and the fineness of the splitting or lumping – depends very much what the classification is going to be used for and who the audience is.
And coping with both a taxonomy and folksonomy (like iTunes does, through playlists) makes a lot of sense.