October 14, 2008

So, I was sitting at Access 08 (a good conference …) listening to a fellow describe the tagging system that had been installed on the their new library catalogue system.  You know how these work.  You find something in your searches and in order to organize all of your stuff, you attach a “tag” to each record “like “good book”, or “environment”, or whatever.  In the process of describing the adoption of this system, the speaker made a rather startling distinction between “selfish” and other tagging (I came up with the word “altruistic” … might not be that great a word).  It was funny to me, because this framed selfish tagging as somehow undesirable.  Those of you who have utilized systems with tagging, however, will quickly realize that all tagging is selfish, but that’s just fine.  My del.icio.us account where I do some of my tagging, is all about collecting items for myself and organizing them in a way that makes sense to me.  Now, I do get a little generous when I do this with the knowledge that I will be sharing my tags, and will contribute to the good of the community by doing so.  Fact is, though, I never look at the community and think, “hmmm, today I think I’ll add to the collection of tags dealing with the economy”.  Never happens.  In fact, this is part of the magic of tagging … I know that other people out there are tagging completely in self-interest, but I also know that when I find someone with a collection of interest, that they will likely have been very focused on this one area and will offer items that i won’t find elsewhere … I want to find these obsessed, self-interested people, when they share my interests. In fact, I don’t recall any times that I bothered with someone with a wide range of interests in a tagging system …

What this talk also revelaed was that the tagging system that had been introduced at this library, had been influenced by the habits of librarians.  This is kind of weird, because librarians are  obsessed with tagging with the community in mind.  They’ve been obsessively tagging everything they come across for a very long time (it’s called cataloguing), and they have carried this over into tagging systems.  They tag wrong, though.  As this person had pointed out, librarians don’t tag selfishly, so they seek out topics and tag items to build up that area.  This skews the whole system, though, as the “tag cloud” starts to suggest that there is great interest in areas where it might only be librarians who are “interested” (they’re not really even interested, they just think that everyone else is, or should be). The tag cloud takes care of itself and is meant to reflect community activities and interests, and it manages this very well, thankyou very much.  Building up tags in certain areas distorts this rather nice, organic view.   

Of course, librarians also want to control vocabulary, and suggest “proper” tags.  (there was some suggestion that the insertion of improper tags could send people down false paths).  This is, of course, ridiculous.  One of the great things about tagging systems is that tags that are outliers wind up falling off the grid … if only one person tags financial information with the word “beans”, nobody will find that info anyway (because you, as a reasonable person will not click on the word “beans” in your search for financial information, nor will you be likely to add more financial info with the tag “beans”) … that record just gets ignored. Reasonable tags are generated quite naturally … this system, it is true, will not work well if you are completely irrational. 

So, yes, tagging is selfish … and that is why the system works. Don’t mess with it, it’s already more rational than you could ever be.


One comment

  1. This is interesting to me, especially in my current work environment. I’ve been entrusted with a task that I’m totally unqualified for – uploading our “library” of research documents to a searchable online database. I have to assign keywords and tags to all of these hundreds of documents and I have no idea how to go about it…and I recently figured out that it’s totally arbitrary, really. There are so many ways to group things together, and it speaks to my interest more than the public’s. It’s daunting.

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