Essence of tagging

The concept of tagging is embraced by some people and shunned by others. There is also a group of people that sit between both camps, happy with tagging as long as there is some degree of control.

I have spoken to librarians who dread the thought of users being involved in the tagging process as they will lose some degree of control. “We are happy as long as we do the tagging. We can’t have users applying tags. They have no idea how to categorise information.”

Unfortunately, I think this is missing the essence of tagging – that users apply tags based on their own needs, languages and perspectives.

A very mild example of this can be seen here:

“While I appreciate the photogenicity of London, pictures of Big Ben or Heathrow airport don’t really deserve the tag “atmedia”.”


For some people, the atmedia tag should only be applied to photos of the conference itself. For others the tag could be applied to photos of people at the conference, related events, related travel or even related food.

This is exactly what makes tagging so unique and alive. Tagging is not formed by rigid definitions, hierarchies or controlled vocabularies. It is formed by people with unique perspectives.

UPDATE: It seems that some would like to take the concept of controlling tagging even further:

“There was this bell tower close to the conference centre that’s quite charming in a 19th century Gothic sort of way, and I can imagine people wanting to share this remarkable discovery online, but a photo of it doesn’t count as an @media impression. Please remove the “atmedia” tag.”


Tags: ,

Date: 20 June 2006
Author: Russ Weakley
Category: Web

Comments so far

  1. Maxine says:

    Good point Russ. I don’t actually know that much about tagging beyond the superficial, but my knee jerk reaction to this criticism is “it probably doesn’t matter”. Would be intererting to do some reading on it. When you get a chance, and if you haven’t already, have a listen to this excellent MP3 – Clay Shirky – Making Digital Durable: What Time Does to Categories – from the Long Now Foundation. He speaks a lot about the potential beneefits, and the challenges of tagging in the context of digital preservation.

    And yeah, any librarian worth their salt really should at least give it a liten too…..

    (search for Shirky on that page)

  2. Ben Buchanan says:

    I’ve just completed a web content management postgrad unit with a majority of library students… they’re big on metadata and really big on controlled vocabs and so on. The meta-data lecture inspired my latest blog post.

    I think the key difference between tagging and traditional meta-data is that tags are “human”; and they form a concensus and not a catalogue. It’s democratic, which means it’s arbitrary and unfair! :) But it’s surprisingly effective for certain topics.

    It does bomb when you get naming clashes though – eg. trying to look up posts tagged “opera” (or “thong” :) ) will return wildly unrelated posts. That’s not a fault of the system though, that’s just life. Humans don’t live by a controlled vocab.

  3. although done publicly, tagging is often a way for the submitter to organise their information. if i want to find all my past “atmedia” shots (either during or outside of the conference itself), then it’s my business whether i tag it as such or not. though i can see the counter-argument, and that is symptomatic of the whole “semantic web”: levels of trust, levels of agreement, etc. what if i decide to lie in my tagging? shots of big ben marked up as “eiffel tower”? will my joke (or explicit “poisoning” of the tags) break the whole system? are there any policies on flickr against wrongly tagging shots? where do personal freedom and “public responsibility” overlap/collide here?

    p.s.: your tab order is screwy…the submit button doesn’t come after this textarea, as would be expected

  4. Russ says:

    @maxine – yes Clay Shirky’s stuff is very good – very challenging.

    @ben – Agree. Tagging can be highly effective and also counter-effective. It suits some topics and projects and not others. It can also sit along side traditional categorisation or hierarchy methods as an alternative navigation system. It doesn’t need to be one or the other.

    @pat – The beauty of tagging is that anomalies don’t break the system because the system is looser and more flexible, it can cope with things that do not fit into neat boxes or may be placed in the wrong box (although it could still be argued that a totally incorrect tag may have meaning to the tagger).

    I have actually conducted experiments on this. Take this flickr photo for example where we tried to add masses of tags to test numbers and relevance of tagging.

    PS. thanks for the tabindex – I had missed that little sucker!

  5. “The beauty of tagging is that anomalies don’t break the system because the system is looser and more flexible”

    i didn’t mean “break” as in “it all falls apart”…but a wrong tag will show up as a “blip” when searching for that tag. if done systematically enough, on a large enough scale (e.g. a whole group of people aggressively tagging their own shots wrong and going around en masse to add wrong tags to the shots of others – maybe even with a nice script that takes advantage of the flickr API), it can make those particular tags completely useless. however, at that point, the managers of the “taggable” system (i.e. flickr, in this case) would probably have more of an argument to remove those tags due to the malicious nature of that practice.

  6. Helen Morgan says:

    Agreed, the uncontrolled vocabulary mindset seems anachronistic in the web/digital environment. When did homogenising anything other than milk do anyone any favours?

    I’ve no wish to defend this mindset, or some librarians for that matter (in fact I can think of several I could happily poke in the eye with a sharp stick), but it is worth noting that the National Library of Australia has embraced Flickr, setting up two groups, PictureAustralia: Australia Day and PictureAustralia: People, Places and Events in order to get more images of contemporary Australia into PictureAustralia, their searchable database of Australian pictorial collections. Metadata for PictureAustralia is harvested from Flickr in the form of titles, tags, descriptions and EXIF data. There were concerns about the quality of this metadata (legitimate concerns, as images with crappy or non existent metadata will be a lot less discoverable in the PictureAustralia environment), so the National Library posted guidelines and examples in the groups’ descriptions. There has been a noticeable improvement in the quality of metadata on images submitted to these groups subsequently, indicating that people are willing to follow guidelines (if they see a return for doing so I guess).

    I’m an advocate of so-called social tagging, and dislike prescription, but providing minimal guidelines on tagging in the Flickr environment, for example, which people are free to follow or ignore, might improve the user experience.