August 1st, 2006
In the virtual seminar I gave on tagging last week we had some great questions from attendees. We had so many, in fact, that I couldn’t address them all in the time we had.
Several of the questions dealt with a common concern: tags are messy.
Tag are messy because there are no rules about how to create or use them. This makes it possible to do almost anything with tags, including, but not limited to:
- Misspell tags ( new-york-sity )
- Use different tags for similar things ( new-york, newyork, newyorkcity )
- Use slang ( bigApple )
- Use context-specific tags ( my-hometown )
The concern with tags like these is that meaning is lost when people tag this way. For example, what if someone is looking for all the information on New York City? Wouldn’t they have to look under each of these tags (and probably many more) in order to find all the useful stuff?
Ironically, what makes tags messy also makes them powerful. The flexibility of tagging systems to support a set of tags for each individual is powerful because people can adapt tags to their needs as they see fit. They can use them however they want to. If they want to tag something using slang, they can. If they want to use different tags over time, they can. If they want to use a cryptic language that nobody understands, they can.
Much of the concern about messiness, however, is about the social use of tags. How can I use someone else’s messy tags? This is an interesting question, but if we were to get away from messiness we might have to start instituting rules about tagging. One rule might be: “if you’re tagging something about New York City, use the tag NYC”.
So there’s a tradeoff between the flexibility of tags and their social use. The more flexible they are for users, the less valuable they are to others. The less flexible they are for users, the more valuable they are to others.
But instituting rules for tagging and making them more valuable to others might not be the right way to handle this because most tags are created with a personal use in mind. How can I tag this thing so it is valuable to me? As we’ve seen, people find tags valuable in different ways. This diversity requires flexibility.
If tagging systems weren’t so flexible, they might be less messy. But we might lose their benefits, too.Tweet