Tagging: The Happy Guy in the Hawaiian Shirt

By Deane Barker on July 21, 2005

I was reading an article by Jon Udell about the legacy the tagging craze is going to leave behind. He says

When the novelty wears off [...] I think that tagging will have altered the information landscape in a fundamental way.

[...] it’s the social dimension of tagging that really kicks things into overdrive. At InfoWorld, for example, we’ve been tagging the stories we publish. In a progress report on the experiment, I showed how it’s not only helping InfoWorld editors to work collaboratively toward a common vocabulary, but it’s also enlisting readers to enrich and refine that vocabulary.

This is an important thing, to be sure. But I disagree: the most important legacy I think the tagging craze will leave behind is that it got us all to relax a bit.

Categorization and metadata have traditionally been such uptight affairs: make sure you have a category first, and make sure it fits into the taxonomy somewhere, and then write your article and select the categories it fits into from a list of checkboxes, etc. Tagging has foregone all that: it’s the happy guy in the Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts compared to the uptight Type A in the double-breasted suit.

Consider the Movable Type Tags plugin which I wrote about yesterday. This thing creates Movable Type categories like crazy. Categories used be a sacrosanct, well-planned thing – we add one here only once or twice a year, and when we do, it rates an announcement, if not an actual parade.

But with the Tags plugin, new categories pop to life as fast as you can type keywords. In a way, this plugin is telling you, “Relax, man – categorization is a good and easy thing. An extra category here and there isn’t going to kill anyone, and someone might need it to find something someday.”

Whereas categorization used to be tedious, now it’s almost fun. Can’t think of where to put something? Just start banging away on the keywords field – it’s all good.

This is even more true when you consider that the Tags plugin did nothing new. Nothing. All it did was present a simple way to (1) create new categories, and (2) assign entries to categories. In the end, it was an interface widget, and nothing more.

And isn’t this what all tagging systems are: just ways to make categorization easier? When I discussed keywords and categories in the framework of this site last year (I was way ahead of my time, it turns out – that post is a road map for the tagging craze of the last six months), Joe commented:

I see no functional difference between keywords and categories.

He’s right. Tags are categories, categories are tags. One is just more...laid back than the other.

It’s all in the perception of tedium. People hate to “categorize,” but they’ll “tag” all day long. Hallelujah.

(Note: I stole the picture of the Hawaiian shirt from this page, so go buy a shirt from them so they don’t sue me. And how can you not like a place called “Discount Preppy.” Tag that one.)

Comments (6)

BIll says:

Totally dude (says hawaiin shirt guy). However, It’s nice to think a post can be enhanced by allowing your users to tag (or categorize) it, in addition to the admins category selection.

BIll says:

Whoops – the article you quoted says just that - “also enlisting readers to enrich and refine that vocabulary

Deane says:

Funny sidebar –

The picture of the Hawaiian shirt at the top that I stole from “Discount Preppy” originally has a tag hanging off it. A tag. Get it?

I had my designer rubber stamp it out, but then Joe pointed out the irony. A tag. On an image illustrating a post about...tagging. Huh.

Robert Waugh says:

The complete tagging system acts as a middle ground between hierarchical categorization and a search script.

Search boxes give specific results, but search boxes are notoriously blank. What to type in it? Who knows? Categories show the reader what content to expect, but they lack depth. They don’t sift through the content like search scripts do.

Tags or keyword listings can act as a hybrid of the two. They look deeply into the content almost like search scripts would, and give the reader a scannable list of topics covered.

And that’s why I love tags, in 100 words or less.

Deane says:

The complete tagging system acts as a middle ground between hierarchical categorization and a search script.

So you’re going to have both tags and a taxonomy? Will they ever cross ground? For instance –

Will assigning an item to a category automatically give it certain tags so it appears in a tag search? Will giving an item a certain automatically place it in your taxonomy somewhere so it appears when someone browses? Or will your taxonomy just be a lookup of tag hits, like we discussed here –


Robert Waugh says:

I use both tags and an overcomplicated hierarchy spread over a five-blog weblog. I wasted months of not blogging creating an all-inclusive taxonomy. I still hate my categories and alter them quarterly.

As for tagging, I created a serviceable tag listing, in a day and a half, including time to move post slugs out of the Keywords field, replacing them with actual keywords.

In entries I may repeat the category as a tag, but not always. An entry assigned to the “Movable Type” category also has “Movable Type” in the Keywords field, but entries within my “Creativity” category never use a “creativity” tag. In time the tags may help reset my categories like broken bones, and that’s one good reason not to tie them together at the ankle. Imagine I set up tag listings for each individual category, then I might see natural breaks or common bonds which could suggest changes.

And yes, some of my tags are evolving into a floating hierarchy. When I mention a book, I tag the entry with “book” and “book/title+of+book”. I can use this logical link later when my system evolves. For now it’s underemployed.

But my categories, keywords, and search scripts will always remain separate. My idea of a taxonomy resembles pigeonholing. I stuff the entire page in one box based on its overall theme. But a single theme contains several topics strung together, with important keywords only briefly mentioned... tagging works well describing these multifarious topics within an entry. And search scripts only understand letters and word boundaries, not meanings.

For example, I often use the keyword “humor” for my (supposedly) funny entries. To a search script humor does not compute. Also since humor can occur within any category, tagging allows me to keep my hierarchy pure and relatively simpler.