Folders vs Virtual Folders

June 10, 2015Category: WebTags: , , ,

I’m a huge proponent of organization. Every email I get is sorted into it’s proper folder or sub-folder. My music collection is sorted into folders, as are my images, and my projects at work. The problem with folders, however, is that they limit you to one organizational scheme. For example, my music is organized into Genre folders. What if I want to listen to an artist who’s music might fall across genre’s? Or just one album? What if a song is really more than one genre? I have to move files, or search for an artist, or even make duplicate copies of a file. None of those should be required. Is there a better option though? The answer is yes: Virtual folders.

Virtual folders are created via custom taxonomies. Big words I know, but it’s actually a very simple concept. If you’ve ever used Windows Explorer (My Computer), then think back to when you looked a folder with music. If you had the Details view turned on, you can see that each music file has extra information attached to the file. Windows can tell the Artist, the Album, and the Genre of the song.


Each of those columns is a single taxonomy. Artist is a taxonomy. Album is a taxonomy. Genre is a taxonomy. A taxonomy is just a characteristic of a file that we can define. With a traditional folder system, I have to pick just one of those taxonomies (Artist, Genre, Album) to use as my organizational scheme, which lead to the problems mentioned above. What if Windows would let me create virtual folders based on one of those columns?

Right now, Windows can’t so that. What is can do is sort the list of music by any of the columns. The files then appear in an order based on that taxonomy. However, it’s still one giant list. It’s not sorted into sub-folders. What if instead of just sorting the list, I could right click on the column header and say, “Sort into virtual folders based on this taxonomy”. Instead of a giant list of files, I’d instead have a list of sub folders.

Some music programs already do this. In Google Play Music, you can sort files by artist, or by genre, or by album. You see a list of Artists (which is really just virtual folders) that when clicked on show just the songs by that Artist. It’s not built in to the operating system yet, though. And while music has some options, other media, especially images, don’t. This is because with music, a few typical taxonomies (album, artist, genre) cover most people’s need. With images, every person will want to organize differently.

This is where custom taxonomies come to the fore. My images might be organized by when I took them, or by where I was when I did. Funny pictures might be organized with a custom taxonomy called Tags, which is a catch-all for any keyword I might want to use. Google Photos is making a good attempt at using tags to organize, and it’s trying to use machine learning to automatically tag. Facebook opens up your images to all of your friends for tagging, but it’s system is mostly based on tagging just who is in the picture, rather than the content of it.

A place that is ripe for experimentation is WordPress. Now that the media grid project has entered the core, we are absolutely read for a virtual folders implementation. Folders have been the most request feature for the past 10 years running. The feature is always rejected, for good reason. Virtual folders would have none of the downsides.

My hope is that eventually Windows will bake in virtual folder support. I hope that it allows multiple entries in each taxonomy, so that files might appear in multiple virtual folders.