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by Jay Fienberg

Folksability, part 2: usability, or how folks come to use things

posted: Mar 17, 2005 6:47:01 PM

This the second part in a series of posts about what I call "folksability". The first post includes my definition of folksability and an overview of this series with links to each part.


Usability is commonly thought of as referring to the quality of how easy something is to use. But, it's important to note that it more technically refers to the quality of how usable something is for particular purposes by particular individuals.

(For example, I find my synthesizer's piano-style keyboard easy to use to produce arpeggios over multiple octaves, and so it is perfectly usable to me. But, it might well be completely not-usable to a saxophonist wanting to produce similar arpeggios on my synthesizer.)

When some thing (website, application, place, publication, etc.) has a high degree of folksability, it's concept of what constitutes good usability is generally very different from otherwise similar things with low folksability. For example, Wikipedia with high folksability has very different usability priorities than Encyclopedia Britannica with low folksability.


When someone sees Wikipedia as bad, or folksonomies as good, etc., one dimension they see is usability—specifically, usability issues which either look miniscule or gigantic in the lens of folksability.

One specific task that is central to many pro and con arguments about Wikipedia is how easy it is for anyone to change an entry in Wikipedia. In other words, Wikipedia has high usability when it comes to allowing anyone to add or edit its entries.

In contrast, the entries in traditional encyclopedias like Britannica can not be edited by anyone (except for a small group of editors, of course). They have very low usability in this sense.

It is perhaps simplest to describe the usability of Britannica in terms of the encyclopedia as a read-only user interface to articles written by credentialed scholars and experts. In other words, one usability priority of Britannica is ensuring that every entry the "user" might use is the product of a certified individual expert or body of experts, and that the user will not inadvertently use an entry where that pedigree is in any doubt or absent.

Wikipedia provides little or no usability in this sense. The Wikipedia user can not use the Wikipedia as a discrete interface to scholars and experts.

From the point of view of the creators and users of an encyclopedia like Britannica, Wikipedia's forcing individuals to use entries that aren't from guaranteed experts is a major drawback—it might even suggest that Wikipedia is unusable. If, for whatever reason, one depends on that "expert guarantee", then this makes sense.

But, this fails to account for all of the possible uses an encyclopedia might have outside of that "expert guarantee". And, in particular, this fails to acknowledge how much information and knowledge folk garner from each other as opposed to exclusively from experts acting in an official capacity—and also that certifiable expertise is directly present in this folk context.

The traditional encyclopedia's narrow focus on guaranteed expertise doesn't recognize the contribution of folksability to the usability of information and knowledge. In contrast, Wikipedia's high folksability focus recognizes the value of individual "users" helping each other make the most of the encyclopedia—specifically, making its information more usable and useful by adding to it and refining it.

In terms of folksability then, Wikipedia's quality is tied to the ongoing participation of folks like you and me who read Wikipedia and, through its specific usability priorities (e.g., easy to edit), find ourselves adding and editing entries.

The ongoing result of Wikipedia's high folksability is an encyclopedia that often reflects direct expertise. However, in cases when it is perhaps less expert than Britannica, through its folksability, it nevertheless is very useful in ways that I'll discuss more in the subsequent entries in this series.


Folksonomy is a term that is being applied to applications that support tagging, like and Flickr. And, comparisons have been made between these applications and other applications—and information structures used by other applications, such a hierarchical taxonomies.

One often suggested comparison is between tagging and strict hierarchies and/or vocabularies not under one's control. For example, with, anyone can tag things how they want, but in other info systems, they are required to use certain labels determined by the application (which may be related to a strict taxonomy or controlled vocabulary).

This comparison can also be described in terms of different usability priorities, and in terms of folksability.

Tagging applications have high usability when it comes to creating labels for tags and associating things (links in the case of, pictures in the case of Flickr) with the tags.

There is no specific application or information structure that has been regularly contrasted with tagging, so I'll make one up (hierarchical, controlled vocabulary) as an illustration—this drop-down list of big cities I've lived in:

If I were creating an application only for myself where I wanted to tag all of my photos with the city I was living in at the time the photos were taken, this controlled vocabulary listing the cities I've lived in could have a lot higher usability for me than free tagging. On the other hand, this list would have very low usability to most people (whom I am assume also live in places like , etc.).

Again, folksability can be seen as an important factor in how different usability priorities affect the perception of the usefulness of tagging applications. Usability that allows more (folk) participation corresponds with higher folksability than usability that is more tuned to the needs of specific individuals.

Individuals doing specific tasks with an application may well find a controlled interface with no or low folksability more usable than a tagging interface. And people wanting an interface that encourages their own and others participation may find external controls / limits inhibiting to this participation—and thus have a natural affinity with free tagging interfaces.

So, to summarize: making a comparison between Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias, and also making a comparison between folksonomy applications and other systems of organizing information, are both making comparisons between things with widely different types of usability. And, folksability can be seen as a framework for evaluating how certain usability priorities change depending on how they affect "folk" participation.

(Tag users—get your fix here: ;-)

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trackback from: Common Craft
posted: Mar 30, 2005 4:06:48 PM
title: Jay Fienberg and the The Folksability Series

I had breakfast this morning with a couple of really smart guys: Chris Dent and Jay Fienberg. This was my first time meeting Jay – he is new in Seattle. We talked about Jay’s recent writings in a series about “folksability”- which is a work in-progress...

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