A taxonomy of humour – what nurses can teach us about classification

In Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Starr’s excellent book Sorting Things Out, they investigate the creation of the Nursing Interventions Classifcation (NIC) by a group of nurses in Iowa. The NIC was created to address the lack of visibility and accountability of nursing work in hospitals. As information technology became widespread within hospitals, nursing work needed a standardised vocabulary in order to be adequately recognised and compensated by hospital authorities. This was resisted by some nursing professionals, who argued for a more flexible taxonomy that preserved the ‘natural’ language of nurses.

This illlustrates well the issues currently being raised by the growth of informal tagging and taxonomy infrastructures in services like delicious and flickr. Some commentators have hailed these informal or ‘folk’ taxonomies as a revolution in classification methodology, whilst others, like Danah Boyd, have argued that ‘folksonomies’ don’t help taxonomists address questions about the meaning and impact of classification:

Folksonomy isn’t asking the questions about the implications of collective action classification. Who benefits? Who becomes marginalized? What priorities bubble up? How does pressure to homogenize affect the schema and the people involved? How are some people hurt or offended by decisions that are made? Should moderation of classifications occur? If so, what are the consequences?

This is precisely the tension described by Bowker and Star. Their book investigates the interface between the ideology and practise of classification, and how this affects professional and social behaviour. One of their central themes is ‘invisible work’ – the act which creates taxonomies, like history, but is not represented in the final outcome. The NIC is an attempt to make the invisible work of nurses visible, but also to keep the process as visible as possible, via workshops with nurses around the US, and regularly revisions via contributions and conferences.

It is this visibility that is lauded in folksonomies, with wikipedia being the prime example. The exponential network effects of the internet enable mass vernacular collaboration, and systems that can make visible the creation and revision of taxonomies that are simultaneously ‘in play’ as working infrastructures. Does this represent a revolution in classification processes? Does this visibility allow people to resolve the tensions inherent in any taxonomical structure, or make its implementation any more effective?

One of the most contentious issues in the NIC was the classification of social functions, such as ‘mood management’ (preparing a patient for grief or stress before an operation) and even ‘humour’. How could humour be represented in a taxonomy? How could you reimburse or measure it? The resulting classification might help to make visible this work, but it sits uneasily as a classification, as illustrated by this exercept:

Determine the types of humour appreciated by the patient
Determine the patient’s typical response to humour
Determine the time of day that patient is most receptive
Select humourous materials that create moderate arousal for the individual
Encourage silliness and playfulness

Are these useful classifications? Who do they best help? The practising nurse or the administrator? Do you think these descriptions could be productive for a conversation between the two? Or would they perhaps impose artificial boundaries on the improvisational nature of this kind of care?

Perhaps this illustrates the limit of folksonomies – they are only useful in a context in which nothing is at stake. Folksonomies are, in essence, just vernacular vocabularies; the ad-hoc languages of intimate networks. They have existed as long as language itself, but have been limited to the intimate networks that created them. At the point in which something is at stake, either within that network or due to its engagement with other networks (legal, financial, political, etc) vernacular communication will harden into formal taxonomy, and in this process some of its slipperiness and playfulness will be lost.

Digital networks have massively increased the scale of the intimate networks we can potentially create, and therefore have increased the number of participants that can create and share ad-hoc vocabularies. The internet has created tools that preserve the loosely-connected, the playful, the ad-hoc, vernacular, or amateur – the conditions of the infinite, rather than the finite game.

But this is a revolution of scale, not the erasure of tension between formality and informality. That boundary still exists, and will be just as sharp, if not sharper, as it will be negotiated between thousands, rather than a handful, of participants. Whilst folksonomies are used to create loose taxonomies of leisure pursuits (photography, music, websites, tv, etc) there is little at stake, and even a participant group measured in millions can happily share these loose infrastructures. And yes, there are business models that have been made possible by the exponential increase in scale that would have been untenable before digital networks transformed our intimate relationships. But this is an increase in scale of an already existing set of behaviours, not a new set of behaviours in themselves.

Bowker and Star identify three values that are in competition within classfication structures: comparability, visibility and control. Folksonomies have elevated visibility, but at the expense of comparability (being able to translate classifications across taxonomies or contexts) and control (the ability of the classification to limit interpretation, rather than interpret ’emergent’ behaviour). Whilst nothing is at stake, and there is little lost by not being able to transfer taxonomies from one context to the other, or users are not disadvantaged by the need to independently assess and contextualise meaning, folksonomies will provide a useful service.

At what point will visibility not be enough for these emerging folksonomies? Jimmy Wales has already discussed spinning off ‘hard’ versions of wikipedia, so that users who are less interested in playfulness and more interested in authority can feel more secure using the service. As a purely social service, Flickr might be able to stay playful for longer, without users worrying too much about the uses and abuses of classification.

This, then is the question we need to ask of folksonomies – how revolutionary is the ability to play? What are the real benefits to users? What are the costs? And more importantly, who is able to play, and who is excluded?


  1. Many-to-Many

    Matt Locke on folksonomies

    Wonderful Matt Locke piece on folksonomies, which introduces not one but two substantial ideas to the debate: Perhaps this illustrates the limit of folksonomies – they are only useful in a context in which nothing is at stake. [Emphasis his]…

  2. Seth Russell

    Folksonomy is just tapping into what makes language work in the first place. Signs which are *not* interperted by an observer the same was as they are by the signer, is the default case. The matching getting better and better the more it is attempted like a habit. What is amazing is how good it already is … how often do you tag things the way others do at del.icio.us ? It is not that it will “harden into formal taxonomy”, it is that the processing of tuning will zero in on actual communication. This is what has been happening for a long long time now. What is exciting is that network users have started to create tools to accelerate our natural use of semiotics.

  3. peer pressure


    More on folksonomies with another post by Clay Shirky, referencing an interesting piece by Matt Locke. What bugs me a bit is the extent to which this discussion still has an “us vs. them” character. The message from the folksonomy types to the ontolo…

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