The trouble with tagging

In my last post, I provided links to a lot of well-written criticism of the “tag cloud” / folksonomy approach to organizing content. Yet it’s pretty clear that tag-based folksonomies make it easier to find certain types of information.

Tags turn out to be a lot faster than google at identifying new, important blog articles. Most of the taggers are subscribing to blogs via rss feeds, and saving the articles that they are interested in using some kind of tagging site (, technorati, etc). As a result, before google has even picked up a particular blog article, it starts showing up on the “what’s popular right now” pages of the various tag sites. This immediately introduces the article to a new wave of readers who are very likely to be using tagging, creating a self-sustaining effect (much like an action potential in a neuron).
This demonstrates the critical aspect of tags right now: all the tagging is being done by web-obsessed information architecture / web developer / blogger types. This has both positive and negative effects. On the plus side, if you are an IA / web dev / blogger type, the content being marked up by tags is the content you are interested in, and the vocabulary used to mark up the tags is a vocabulary that you share (sweet!). On the down-side, much of the value provided by tag-based systems seems to be the result of this “gated community” effect, and thus will disappear when tagging becomes more of a mainstream activity (damn!).
Lets take an example. I write about AJAX a lot. To stay up to date on thinking about AJAX, I keep an eye on new entries is I also have a saved search in my rss reader (bloglines) that lets me know any time a new blog article uses the word AJAX. It is remarkable how much more useful is (compared to the saved search on bloglines). The reason for this is that AJAX is also the name of a very popular (and somewhat controversial) European football team, and the football bloggers create so much noise in the signal that it’s not worth my time to search through the results.
What’s going to happen once the football bloggers (who, after all, are tech-savvy enough to be blogging) start tagging? The search value of the tag will obviously start to lose value for me, and will start to approximate the weird mix of results that I currently get from google or bloglines. Once the gem traders start using the “ruby” tag, will also become a lot less useful to me.
The problem is that most words have multiple meanings: as different communities start to use tagging, the tags will be polluted with the meanings these different communities attribute to these words.
I don’t think this problem is insolvable (one obvious fix is to simply have different tagging sites for different communities, rather than one uber-tag-space). But it needs to be dealt with, and I haven’t seen anyone else even acknowledging that this is going to be an issue. Thoughts or possible solutions to this problem? As always, feel free to post comments in the space below.

2 thoughts on “The trouble with tagging

  1. brian leroux April 29, 2005 / 3:08 pm

    I think the solution might be in better tag naming discipline (I’m a developer tho). For example…
    somewhat like Namespaces. Another alternative would be to enable hierarchical tagging. These ideas do, however, somewhat defeat the purpose of tagging…

  2. jon April 29, 2005 / 7:51 pm

    Good idea, but won’t work! Folksonomies/tagging are based on _emergent_ names. The whole point is that it’s informal and in the user’s own language. There is no central body to design and enforce namespace.

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