With Tagging Messiness Means Flexibility

Joshua Porter

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.

10 Responses to “With Tagging Messiness Means Flexibility”

  1. Eddie Says:

    Forcing the user to conform to the tag with rules would probably not be as effective as just coming up with something similar to say… google suggest?

    For example, as you type “New York”.. you could get a “Did you mean “NYC?” back from the app….or “other people have used ‘NYC’…”

    In other words, let the user think about the tag in their own terms, but show them the value of the “social” tag. Allow them to choose from there.

  2. Eddie Says:

    …of course, as you’ve said in the past, personal value precedes network value, so having a suggested response should in no way interfere with how the user is thinking, and should not be an forced step in the tagging process. it should be seemless, like instantdomainsearch.com or netflix ratings… or those new-fangled “is this username available?” real-time checks.

    This way, the user is not taken out of the flow of their task (and more importantly, personal value) ..but still has easy access to the “social network norms”

  3. Tom Davis Says:

    Making tags useful to the broader community may be problematic right now because of a lack of tools for doing that. Traditionally organizations have used thesaurus based search tools, but that’s not a good fit for tags.

    By intercepting the creation of a new tag and spell checking (possibly requiring a valid word) and possibly offering a way to integrate a novel tag with the thesaurus, organizations could keep the flexibility while providing an opportunity for people other than the tagger to make use of that tag.

    Additionally, as new tools for automatic categorization including mechanical (eg Bayesian Filtering) or social (eg Google like algorithms) become more widely used with tags, their usefulness will increase.

    Of course that might be considered bad by people who use private tagging.

  4. Andrew Says:

    “Forcing the user to conform to the tag with rules would probably not be as effective as..[auto suggest].”

    Auto-suggest is one thing, and del.icio.us uses it nicely to suggest tags I’ve already created. But I bet it would be a net loss to suggest (or require) tags from some existing set.

    Joshua says “The concern with tags like these is that meaning is lost when people tag this way.” It seems like from the user’s point of view, meaning is always *created* when they tag that way.

    If tags are “messy” that’s only true on the system-side, not on the user side. “myhometown” is perfectly meaningful, possibly more meaningful to me than any other tag the system knows about. And if it happens to overlap with someone else’s use of that term? Not my problem!

  5. James Says:

    Taking the example of tagging that I’m most familiar with; Flickr- why not let other users add their own tags to your photos? These publicly suggested tags could be voted on by other users; building up a big picture of what the masses think is the most useful “tag” for your photo.

  6. Jared Spool Says:

    James: Interesting idea. A photo owner can change the settings to allow others to tag their photos on flickr. The default is not allowing it.

    How would you prevent tags like we see on Consumating.com. For example, check out the “What others tagged” section of this person’s profile. What’s the purpose of the “Show Me Your PHP” or the “COV Rocks” tags?

  7. Eddie Says:

    Andrew- you quoted me as if I was suggesting a forced tag. Google autosuggest doesn’t force itself on you either. It gives you the results you asked for while (in parallel) shows you the “did you mean…”

    Clearly I implied the same point you are making? Still- perhaps you didn’t see my second post where I explicitly stated your point:

    so having a suggested response should in no way interfere with how the user is thinking, and should not be an forced step in the tagging process.

    anyway, back on point:

    But I bet it would be a net loss to suggest (or require) tags from some existing set.

    Depends on the context. For tags that have meaning to you (again, personal value precedes network value) this is probably true. But, as I discussed(my own site) there are certainly cases where others need to use your tags.. like posting and searching for jobs by country “tags.” In this case, it’s not a net loss to suggest something like “the community has decided to use “USA” for “United States of America…” and it’d be in your best interest (net gain) to follow suit, or else you’ll get frustrated job seekers and potentially less applicants.

    How about a resturant review site and you tag your review as “mexicen” on accident? Who’s going to see your review then? Of course, you’d always be able to still choose that value with the same level of effort, just like google, if that’s what you really wanted.

    But that’s forcing the users to conform, even if it’s a fairly easy process. Better still would be to have smarter search feature. So… if I click on “mexican” to find my reviews.. it gets all “mexican” tagged items, and then suggests the other ones…”We also found a ‘mexicen’ tag… will that work?”

    …but of course, as we enterain that line of thinking out further, it eventually leads to tagging of tags :) Hello square one!

  8. For Users Only » Blog Archive » Improving the sociability of tagging Says:

    [...] In a short item on UIE Brain Sparks (” With Tagging Messiness Means Flexibility“), Joshua Porter discusses the messiness of tagging. He says that the strentgh of tagging, its flexibility, also has a downside: it’s more difficult to search in other people’s tags. The solution might be, he says, that […] 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”. [...]

  9. James Says:

    Jared: I think the public voting would get over that problem, as the masses vote for the useful tags, the non-useful / non-relevant information is pushed out of focus. Maybe these tags could be displayed as tag clouds, so the good (popular) one’s stand out and the rubbish stuff becomes minute and eventually disappears?

  10. Joshua Says:

    Andrew says:

    “If tags are “messy” that’s only true on the system-side, not on the user side. “myhometown” is perfectly meaningful, possibly more meaningful to me than any other tag the system knows about. And if it happens to overlap with someone else’s use of that term? Not my problem!”

    Exactly right!

Add a Comment