Tagging (a la del.icio.us / flickr / technorati) is a clever newish technique for empowering users to organize digital content. But alas, in the world of blogging, and in the world of the west-coast tech elite, nothing is ever just a useful, good innovation. It’s always the “new new thing”, the game-changing paradigm that will eliminate all that comes before it.
Tagging jumped the shark with Clay Shirkeys overheated “ontologies are overrated” speech at ETech 2005, and since then a host of articles challenging the idea of tags as information nirvana have emerged like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Below are some choice excerpts from the backlash.
Someone needs to do a little basic research. First (this is the hard part) you pull together a set of sample searches. Then, you go and do each search twice, once using keywords and once using tags. Then you record which way worked better.
A month later, he notes
the longer I go on asking this question (are tags useful) and not getting an answer, the more nervous I get.
This fundamantal question – are tags useful? – seems to get lost in the ideological shuffle. And the notion that they signal the imminent decline of hierarchical systems seems to me a leap unsupported by the facts – and, as Smith points out, reminiscent of the rhetorical excesses of the dotcom era.
At times it’s been hard to separate out the practical enthusiasm for tags and folksonomies (which I share) from the ideological enthusiasm which suggests that tags are the One True Way.
The argument from inevitability is a great way to simultaneously sidestep your opponent’s objections while confirming your own assumptions. It’s also good for keeping the discussion in the abstract rather than concrete. Because it’s a forced move, there’s no point asking why both Amazon and Wikipedia use categories. Or why does the failure to organize the whole web into a hierarchical taxonomy (like the Yahoo Directory) mean that taxonomies are useless? Or, like, do you seriously mean that tagging will replace all other kinds of categorization? Across the whole freaking web? Surely not.
Peter Merholtz says that tags have a
“strange zeitgeist that seems out of step with its actual value.”
Zeldman hilariously describes tag clouds as “the new mullets”
Like mood rings and fanny packs, like mullets and the Macarena, the weighted tag clouds meme popularized by Flickr and Technorati is about to cross a permanent cultural shame threshold. Brilliant as the idea remains, faddishness is choking its air supply. Damned clouds are everywhere.
And confusability writes passsionately about the abdication of responsibility for design that is inherent to tag-based systems:
But we cannot abdicate our responsibility for designing robust information architectures that enrich and enliven the user experience by pretending that mob tagging is much more useful that the rubbish left behind in the cow fields after the Glastonbury Festival.
I have some ideas about why the initial reaction to tags has been so enthusiastic, and what are the current problems with tagging are (hint: the enthusiasm and the problems are related). Stay tuned for a follow-up posting on this topic.