Thursday, November 10, 2005

Tagging and Social Bookmarks

Tagging and social bookmarks

I’ve been thinking a lot about categorization, tagging and bookmarks. Everyone seems to have an opinion on why and how social bookmarking will change the browsing experience, and how services like Joshua Schachter’s have an impact on categorization and taxonomies. There are a lot of projects around this topic, and this post is a dissertation of possibilities.

One word of warning: this is a theoretical and philosophical post - commenting is appreciated - I would definitely like some outside opinions.

The premise

Let’s start with the premise that tagging is a more natural process than categorization. Tagging or labelling an object with keywords that it relates to is innate to the human being and the proof is any person can, given an object, list semantic associations to that item as a single cognitive step.

With categorization though, you are applying a filter to your list of associations in order to come up with the most relevant related category. This second step is what in my opinion gives tagging an advantage - it relieves the user from having to make hard choices about the object. This is why tagging is great: little effort, some redundancy.

Motivations to tag

You could say tagging is really cool. And it is. But there is one aspect to tagging that some people usually don’t think about: the lack of motivation to tag for public consumption. Allow me to explain: when you tag something in, you’re doing it for yourself and not others. In fact, the number of cases on which you would tag for others is extremely limited, because *who cares* about how you tag if they won’t use that information [1]?

People don’t tag what isn’t theirs if they don’t see value in the outcome of the process. They can’t be bothered. They won’t tag something that is volatile either, because the usefulness goes down to almost zero.

Publishers on the other hand, have a reason to tag. Tagging can be a mechanism to find data and by tagging, publishers are giving people other ways to find that data. That’s the motivation. Lets see some examples:

  • I tag my private bookmarks in my own personal system
  • I tag my to organize information like books, movies and notes
  • I tag photos on flickr because people search for them by tags
  • I tag my blog posts so others can find them by subject

Usefulness of services (

There is usefulness in some services out there. I see value in, because people can use the system in several distinct ways both acting as publisher and user. Other services that rely on tags out of novelty are bound to fade out, though. The assumption that tagging is something people will do without getting something in return is wrong.

There are much better ways to use the possibilities that folksonomies offer, other than expecting people to tag anything just because they can - it just doesn’t happen.

Do you tag? How do you tag? Why do you tag? What services do you use that involve the process of tagging? I know my own answers to those questions, I’d like to hear yours too. Leave a comment if you have something to say.

[1]: This lack of motivation for user tagging is what makes me wonder if “social bookmarking” having a future is a product of hype or a solution to a problem. The thing is, if it is an answer to something, what is the question? Why is social bookmarking important? I still haven’t found anyone that has given me a satisfactory answer, and this only increases my disbelief.


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