Tags, tags, tags. They’re everywhere, from big name news sites to tin-pot backwaters like this one. But are they any real use to the average internet denizen, and more specifically to science fiction heads?
I imagine that most readers here are at least familiar with the concept of tagging, if not already active tag creators and/or consumers themselves. I fell in love with the concept when I first started blogging about a year ago or so, and hammered it ever since – it strikes me as being quite science fictional, the sort of thing Bruce Sterling might have thrown out as an aside in a story at some point. But I’ve always had a few niggling questions about it – the main one being “am I using this in the same way as everyone else, and which methodology is the most valuable?”
Via Slashdot comes news that far greater minds than mine have had similar thoughts :
“Depending on where you go and who you ask, tags are implemented differently, and even defined in their own unique way. Even more importantly, tags were meant to be universal and compatible: a medium of sharing and conveying info across the internet — the very embodiment of a semantic web. Unfortunately, they’re not. Far from it, tags create more discord and confusion than they do minimize it.”
The article goes on to discuss one of my personal bugbears. Say for example you want to tag something with a two word phrase – ‘open source’ is one that I use quite often. Personally, I tend to use the two words as separate tags, but I can see from scouting around on del.icio.us that plenty of people run the two words into one instead.
Now, you’re probably thinking that it’s not that big a deal outside of Geek Central, and in the grand scheme of human existence you’re completely correct – the world won’t end if people don’t tag things the same way. But a unified tagging standard is one of the major supports for a project/concept/pipedream called the semantic web – I’ll not embarrass myself by trying to sum that up, the Wikipedia entry should do a far more efficient job.
The web as we know it today only holds together because of certain accepted (and somewhat ad-hoc) standards. But ask any website developer about Microsoft’s fast-and-loose approach to HTML rendering standards and you’ll have killed a few hours effortlessly! Likewise with tagging – should the semantic web approach actualisation, tagging will be a big part of how it works, and a simple geeky point like the double word tag issue outlined above is going to cause real problems – or at least a lot of extra coding.
As far as I can see, the problem stems from a simple binary split in people who tag – those who mostly tag for their own benefit (to create a searchable archive of their own bookmarks on del.icio.us, for example) and those who tag to benefit others (to create a breadcrumb trail so that other consumers can reach articles they might be of interest). Personally, I sit somewhere between the two camps, but I lean toward tagging for my own use – on the assumption that people who think in similar ways to me probably tag in the same way, and that those who don’t will probably find their way to the good stuff somehow. A side benefit of the way I tag (heavily, as in many keywords per item rather than just one or two, another binary split) is that it drives a lot more traffic to VCTB from Technorati …
I’m pretty convinced that anyone who thinks about it can see the benefit of tagging, and I imagine localised tag systems will become increasingly commonplace. I really want to see user-generated tags on library catalogues, for example, but the professional librarians I’ve mentioned this to have most been aghast at the idea of letting the average borrower add anything at all to the database!
However, the overall point is that although one person’s tags are very (in fact, inherently) subjective, an aggregate of a community’s tags becomes increasingly objective as the number of taggers increases. It’s a much more intuitive way for the average person to search a catalogue or archive than, say, the Dewey decimal system or a subject index – though I think most library staff concur with my opinion that the Dewey system is more there for the benefit of library staff and the few customers who take the time to find out how it works. If we know where it is, we can find it for someone who doesn’t. Without it, we’d have a hard time digging out precise items from the stock. But the beauty of tagging is that it doesn’t have to replace traditional cataloguing methods – it can run in parallel with them.
Which brings me to another recently mooted idea regarding tags – Melanie Swann at Broader Perspective proposes the tagging of people :
“Why does del.icio.us for people not exist yet? This would be a means of tagging people with words; annotating their interest areas, likes and dislikes, how you know them, where you met them and probably many other aspects of meta data.”
Indeed, why not. She neatly pre-empts the librarian objection to tagging, i.e. griefers tagging inaccurately or insultingly, for the fun of it or for worse reasons:
“Is it ethical to tag people? Why not? A tag cloud accompanying people would be a better implementation of currently self-specified interest areas. Like many technologies, some form of people-tagging seems inevitable and mostly productive. The legal frontier would grow to address the extension of libel and slander as hate-tagging, inaccurate tagging and other problematic tagging occurred. Early people-tagging implementations could allow only self-tagging.”
The social networking implications would be immense – it would be much easier to get in touch and share data with people who shared a certain interest with you, even if they were someone you didn’t know. Say I wanted to share an article with the science fiction community worldwide. I’d just tag it ‘science fiction’ (or maybe ‘sciencefiction’), and anyone with that tag in their declared interest cloud would get the piece in their inbox to read or ignore as they saw fit. But the sf scene is just an example – this could enable microregional and narrow-interest political groups in unprecedented ways. Blogging, it would appear, is just a chrysalis for something yet to come. Whether that thing is the semantic web remains to be seen.
And to bring things back to science fiction (because this is a science fiction blog, after all), tagging could produce an answer to the perennial debates over where a book falls in the taxonomy of sub-genres. If the whole community contributed tags to their favourite books in the ISFDB, we’d be able to get a genuine grassroots consensus on which books were considered ‘hard sf’, ‘cyberpunk’ or whatever. Of course, there’d still be spirited debate and disagreement – and some academics might feel a bit irked by having the power of nomenclature wrested from them – but if nothing else we’d have some decent metrics and data to argue over!