(This has been in my drafts pile for weeks now, and I don't know if I'll ever refine it to my liking. So, here it is, as is...)
Tags are all the rage these days, and for good reason. This blog entry will explain what tagging is about and why tagging will continue to grow in popularity.
What is Tagging?
Tagging is the act of putting categories on web content, but without the constraints of an established set of categories to choose from. While traditional categorical systems are rigidly designed top-down, tagging leads to organic growth of categorical trends.
There are two kinds of tags in use today: producer-tags and consumer-tags.
As the name implies, producer-tags are tags added to web content by the original author. Examples of this include adding tags to blog entries for use by tag repositories like Technorati and IceRocket, as well as adding tags to photos as they’re uploaded to Flikr.
Equally obvious in name, consumer-tags are tags that are added to web content by web readers. Examples of this include del.icio.us, a social bookmarking service that allows you to store and retrieve bookmarks by tag.
As with any categorization system, web content can be retrieved by tag as well. While traditional categorization systems usually dealt with a trickle of new content from a known, limited number of authors, tagging is being applied to a steady torrent of new content across the entire internet. And so, not only can you search for web content based on tags, you can subscribe to a feed of content based on tags.
Why does tagging feel good?
...the beauty of tagging is that it taps into an existing cognitive process without adding much cognitive cost. At the cognitive level, people already make local, conceptual observations. Tagging decouples these conceptual observations from concerns about the overall categorical scheme...
The old way of categorization requires two steps: 1) think of all the possible categories, then 2) match your categories with the allowable categories already defined in the system. It is step 2 that has crippled most categorization systems, since my categories for things seldom matches your categories for things. I've seen lots of metadata systems that are lovingly designed, and empty.
With tagging, there's only one step: 1) think of all the possible categories. Granted, this may be sloppy, but it's a heck of a lot faster, and a lot less cognitive load to process... fast and easy.
What will tagging do to Information Architecture?
In Semi-structured meta-data has a posse: A response to Gene Smith, Clay Shirky over at You're It! comments:
I... am of the unreasonable view that classification schemes are going to be largely displaced by tagging for the same reasons that search has largely displaced directories for finding things, namely that distributed intelligence, for all its faults, tends to beat the work of a professional class when dealing with large, dynamic systems.
Or, like, do you seriously mean that tagging will replace all other kinds of categorization? Across the whole freaking web? Surely not.
...Yes, I really do mean that tagging will replace other kinds of formal categorization. Across, like, the whole freaking web.
FWIW, I tend to agree. Even within organizations, tagging has the potential to dramatically displace top-down categorization and metadata systems, simply because people will use them!