Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tagging - People Powered Metadata for the Social Web (review)

Tagging book cover

In the year 2001, I read a modest review in the New York Times about a Windows-only bookmark manager called PowerMarks. This software permitted you to save bookmarks, and then to add a number of "keywords" — now known as "tags". Five minutes after testing it, I was convinced: this multiple tagging system was, by leaps and bounds, the best way to manage website bookmarks.

The system intrigued me. The fact that I could add multiple tags meant that one chunk of information could be virtually placed into many different categories — categories of my choice. Think how simple it would be to find your real-world books, if you could place one book on many different bookshelves: Thoreau's Walden could be placed on an "Author" shelf, on a "Non-fiction" shelf, on a "Favorites" shelf, on a "Read-soon" shelf, on a "Nature" shelf, on a "Transcendental" shelf, and so on. With tidbits of electronic information (not real-world stuff), tagging makes this miracle of organization happen.

Seven years after PowerMarks, tagging is now immensely popular, and used all over the Net. You can tag your website bookmarks using Delicious.com (or its alternative, Ma.gnolia). You can add labels to your Gmail emails. Tag your Flickr photos and YouTube videos and SlideShare PowerPoint presentations. For your made-of-paper books, you can sort your book titles using tags on Library Thing. Everybody is getting into the act: Facebook has a tagging system; and Photobucket; and even Mac computers (with the Leopard operating system) let you tag individual files on your computer using colored labels.

Tagging is popular for four reasons: it is simple to do; it helps you to find information; and it connects you with other tagged media — and with other people who tag.

There's more to tagging than you might imagine; and the big picture about this flourishing practice is all explained in a very readable book, Tagging, by Gene Smith.

People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web
Published by New Riders, 2008; Paperback, 208 pages

Information professionals should certainly devour a copy; as should anyone involved in developing tagging systems. My interests were simpler and more self-centered: I wanted to create my own personal tagging technique to survive the boundless chaos comprising the text documents, photos, audio files, videos, bookmarks and ebooks, all strewn randomly inside my one-terabyte hard drive.

Bookmarking your favorite websites does not solve your problem: it simply creates a different problem. After your first 1,000 bookmarks, sorting these bookmarks into folders becomes a silly exercise, and finding what you need becomes a hopeless chore.

The solution — the way to find your needed information — is by intelligent use of tagging. Smith's book explains how tagging works; why it is important; how to manage your information with tags; and how tagging develops online communities. The book competently describes the meaning of metadata, tag clouds, geotagging, machine tags, Cory Doctorow's metacrap problem, pace layering, "the stream", and other essential concepts in the tagging galaxy. I was especially impressed with the theme, running throughout the book, of "tagging's tension points" — different aspects of tagging systems that pull in opposite directions. (For example: should users be able to create their own tags, or should we be restricted to using the tags built-in to the system?).

The book concludes with three "Case Studies" as Appendixes. Editorially speaking, I would have shuttled them out of the Appendix region and made three additional chapters; in any case, these three chapters are interesting studies of social bookmarking, media sharing, and personal information management. I had to laugh when I learned that the Delicious.com bookmarks were invented by the programmer Joshua Schachter, which he created in order to track and tag his "20,000 bookmarks." (And you thought that you suffered from information overload …) Another light moment in the book is the paragraph about the tag "defective by design":

"Activists have also used tags as their means of express, creating a new kind of metadata-driven political speech. The Free Software Foundation, for example, launched a tagging campaign on Amazon.com that encouraged people to tag products that used digital rights-management software with "defectivebydesign." More than 1,000 people have used the tag on a variety of products, including MP3 players, DVDs, and video game systems. It remains one of the more popular tags on Amazon."
Smith's new book, Tagging, will help you to understand this valuable practice, and help you to think about how you might organize and label your personal information with greater efficiency. And it may do for you what it did for me: it opened my eyes and expanded my range of interests. Before reading the book I was thinking only about tagging my own data. After reading it, I am newly interested in the benefits of media sharing, and tagging's social dimensions.

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