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On tagging, and why it’s important

July 15, 2010

This is a basic primer on Tagging. So we’ll start with Wikipedia:

“In online computer systems terminology, a tag is a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helps describe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching. Tags are generally chosen informally and personally by the item’s creator or by its viewer, depending on the system.

Wikipedia sometimes blows, so here’s another go:

Imagine a real library filled with books.

Since a real book can only occupy one part of space, the books are organized by the Dewey Decimal system, developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876. The Dewey Decimal system starts with ten sections ranging from 000 Computer science, information& general works to 900 – History, geography and biography.

Putting aside the fact that biography seems like history, and that this system was developed in 1876!, this is how books are classified in libraries.

And from there, it splits to 100 divisions and 1000 sections. A book I recently read called “Cognitive Surplus” has HM851.S5464 as the call number. I don’t know what those letters and numbers mean, but hunting it down means finding Humanities, and then Ethics, and then just counting up or down through the shelves to find the book.

Because a book is a physical thing, living on a physical shelf, it needs to have a home. The call numbers represent a map to the home. I assume that it’s a complicated call number because in 1876, Dewey didn’t forsee a book like  “Cognitive Surplus” about Web 2.0 things, and ethics, and social science, and digital, etc.

Physical classification demands that things fit in one place.

On a smaller scale, names on real file folders (alphabetically organized) represents this notion in the office. The very concept of a file folder is that every file has one folder as a home.

When computers first came a long, the people who built it copied the real world (because there was no other world to copy).

Leaving us in a weird situation whereby we create digital folders and place digital files in them – even though we don’t. The folders on my desktop called Matt and Jobs aren’t physical. Nor is the content inside them, even though said content only appears in one place to us.

Indeed, this blog post your reading isn’t in a folder. And yet, it is.

Still with me?

I ‘tagged’ this post with all sorts of words ranging from “Social Media to The Dewey Decimal system.

So if you think of tagging as the digital version of “placing digital content in an infinite number of digital folders” then you’re beginning to understand tagging.

Tagging is classifying content in a place that isn’t bound by physics. A library can’t use tagging to classify a book because it has to adhere to the simple fact that a book has to be in one place.

Digital things don’t have to be in one place. Different tags put them in many places.

So why does that matter?

As people add more and more content, the manner in which we find it will have to change. With tagging, we can describe our content in infinite ways, offering infinite ways to find it. If the only way to find something is by the title, then the title has to be dead nuts perfect. If it can be found through tagging, then it’s better.

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