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The Net Takeaway: I continue to despise tagging...

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I continue to despise tagging... · 08/01/2005 01:14 PM, MetaBlog

Update: Lots of traffic to this link from some very nice blogs and del.ico.us users… so, note that it rests in context with my complete series (so far) on why I dislike tagging, including:

I Hate Tags
I still hate tagging….
I continue to despise tagging…
In conference
Tag-Hater at Yahoo, home of tagging?

Now, back to your regularly scheduled reading…

=============================

Clay Shirky is a smart guy… but its like he’s never actually used his ideas in practice. Each time he tries to defend them, he opens himself up for more criticism. But because he’s cool, and pretty darn nice, its hard to hold it against him. However, tagging is one place where we very much diverge.

For example, read this email interview with him and Jon Lebkowsky by Adam Weinroth, founder of EasyJournal. Its a good read, whether you like tags or not.

For example, here’s a quote:

“Tags put post-industrial strength tools in the hands of ordinary users, allowing them to manage the increasingly large corpus of things they’ve already found once, allowing them to re-find them easily.”

Ok… but that’s not how things work in reality. In reality, our understanding of things changes and so do the terms we use to describe them. How do I solve that in this open system? Do I have to go back and change all my tags? What about other people’s tags? Do I have to keep in mind all the variations on tags that reflect people’s different understanding of the topics?

The social connected model implies that the connections are the important part, so that all you need is one tag, one key, to flow from place to place and discover all you need to know. But the only people who appear to have time to do that are folks like Clay Shirky. The rest of us need to have information sorted and organized since we actually have better things to do than re-digest it. This “flow” is one way to access the information, but why do Clay and the rest think it should be the only way?

What tagging does is attempt to recreate the flow of discovery. That’s fine… but what taxonomy does is recreate the structure of knowledge that you’ve already discovered. Sometimes, I like flowing around and stumbling on things. And sometimes, that’s a real pita. More often than not, the tag approach involves lots of stumbling around and sidetracks.

We’ve all laughed at people in the dark, fumbling aroudn for things, knowing that if they turn left, they trip, and if they turn right, they fall on the old couch. That darkness is what I feel everytime I try to use a tagging approach to learn something. It requires me to not only try to understand what words I should use, but also what terms others would use.

Its like the Family Feud (game show in the US in the 70s, still kicking around here). You have to think not of what you might say to a question, you have to guess what the survey of US citizens might say in answer to a question. And that’s really a distraction… if you are trying to just answer the damn question. Why should I have to figure out what terms someone else would use to describe this stuff to find it?

Deep breath.

Or, his mention of the DMS IV-R and its coding schemes. Funny enough, the reason it was invented (4 versions ago) was to solve this problem: everyone used their own term to describe things, and so no-one knew what anyone else was talking about. Then, groups formed to try to use the same terms, but then they didn’t want to use the terms of the other groups, so divisions in knowledge formed. Finally, a group of smart folks suggested that the way out of this random mix of terms and divides was to formally lay out a vocabulary.

Clay feels that it is difficult to enforce a shared vocab. Yes, it is. Many valuable things are hard to do. Otherwise, you wind up with a bunch of random tags, walled gardens, and the state of psychiatry in 1951: a mess.

Lots more to complain about, but the big issue appears to be this: Clay and the taggers don’t like the enforced scheme of a single path, an imposed hierarchy, the idea that knowledge has a location in whatever dimensions. They would rather a scheme which has information being used in whatever way someone thinks it should be, via tags which reflect the different dimensions that information could be used.

And that’s all fine and good, but its good only for certain ways of using the information. That is, if I am interested in seeing, for example, lots of different ways information can be linked, tags make sense. But to assume that this is the best way to the exclusion of all others, to believe that tagging subsumes other access methods, is blind.

Again, Clay Shirky is a smart guy… He was smart when I met him 10 years ago, and he’s even smarter now… but I wonder how often he re-accesses knowledge the way he describes in the interview. I suspect he enjoys using tags as a way to see new angles on knowledge he is holding forefront, but tagging will turn out to flop at knoweldge re-access… Well, until someone formalizes the tag set for that aspect of information and it turns out to look a whole lot like a taxonomy. Watch and see.

* * *

 

  1. Copied from your earlier comments on this subject (back in april)

    If you’re thinking tagging systems serve the same purpose as search engines, to support research, for instance (and certainly if you mean in the same way), you’ve missed the value of tagging systems entirely. Put another way, to evaluate tagging systems in light of their ability to deliver on the same value propositions as search engines, you’re
    missing the point.

    While it is true that we could, and will, do more interesting things associating tags, the fact that they are insular, as you put it, is extremely useful just as it is. If we don’t speak the same language, we’re not useful to one another—at least not at the present time.

    I use del.icio.us to discover smart people on various subjects. I do this by exploring the tags others have used for sites I find useful in a given area. I track from tags back to users. Once I hit upon someone that’s smart in a given area (defined as lots more engaging material in a given area than I’ve been able to collect), I plug his tag of interest into my RSS reader. At the present time I’m “intellectually drafting” off the discoveries of several very smart folks in several different areas. I’ve also discovered that a number of people are drafting off of me in the same fashion—sometimes on the same tags.

    With regard to that latter point, you might think they’re at a loss given that I’m looking to someone else that I consider smarter than me, while they’re stuck with me. But the truth is often different than that. I don’t choose to tag everything my experts find for me. I tag only things that are relevant for me. And that is always different than what is important for anyone else. Now sometimes, my interests are more closely aligned with someone elses than thiers would be to my expert. In a sense, I’m a human filter for them. Again, that’s based upon our “insular” use of tags.

    Search is valuable, and certainly has it’s place. But to the extent it’s shaped our thinking on information acquisition and learning, it’s as much anchor as engine.

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, the value of tagging is less in search, and more in serendipidous discovery. And once the latter is experienced, it seems the greater good.
    bob    Sep 29, 09:57 PM    #


  2. Your skepticism is a good thing – we need to really think through what an All-Tags-All-The-Time future means before we hurl into it.

    So, you ask about “tag drift” i.e. what happens when the community’s labels change or your own labels for things evolve? Do you (for example) lose access to “human-factors” tagged items when the gurus (and then you) start tagging them “experience-design?”

    Not likely, I think. You might be overlooking something I call:

    The Thousand Monkeys and the Long Tail of Tags

    1. Some guru or handful of gurus tags some New Thing with the oh-so-hip tag of “experience-design.” You, being old-school, won’t find it (yet) because “human-factors” is your buzzword of choice. However….
    2. In short order, a Thousand Monkeys (other taggers) will find the hot resource (through the tagsonomy or not) and tag it to suit their diverse tastes. Luckily, the normal distribution of “hipness” among the Thousand Monkeys will pretty much guarantee that their tags will vary from bizarre to unlikely to old-school and beyond. (That’s the Long Tail of Tags.)
    2. Result: The next time you search for “human-factors”, you’ll likely see the New Thing tagged your old-school way.

    Caveats: This argument fails if the resources you are seeking are extremely niche interests or of marginal current value. In both cases, there won’t be enough Monkeys actively tagging the thing for you to find it in all the diverse ways you might want.

    OK, but what about “tag drift” where you start tagging things with “experience-design” and drop your old-school “human-factors” label – won’t you lose access to things you tagged the old way?

    Again, no, for three reasons:

    1) You won’t forget your old label. Also, you will have tagged these items with secondary tags you can also find.
    2) You will use tools built into the tag system to replace older tags or simply add the new tags to your older items.
    3) The Thousand Monkeys will save you by making sure that many of those old resources will be tagged with the new term.

    Bottom-line: The “Thousand Monkeys and the Long Tail of Tags” will rectify the two problems you identify. Both “walled gardens” of tags and “tag drift” are oblitered over time (minutes? hours? of Internet time) as the Thousand Monkeys work to insure that the tag diversity for a topic always increases in proportion to its interest.
    S. Jones    Oct 3, 04:26 PM    #


  3. Your strongest point is about the problem of “random tags” and how they aren’t a viable substitute for authoritative, fixed taxonomy.

    That’s true. The Thousand Monkeys (see my previous comment) tagging items in a open tagging system only make sure that the tag DNA of an item becomes more diverse over time and not less.

    That means that (borrowing an example from the past) long after homosexuality shifted from being tagged as a “perversion” to an “orientation”, you’d continue to see it filed under the debunked and discredited tag.

    Without a normative authority policing tags, then, it looks like folksonomies would succumb to “junk tags” and choke on their own popularity.

    However, I think tag systems will easily overcome this flaw by providing junk filters that would (if you choose) hide oddball results using a “most recently used” algorithm. In other words, if “perversion” has not been used reasonably often or recently for homosexuality then it won’t appear under that heading.

    Blessing tags this way may seem fuzzy or scary because it lacks central control but is really no different from the way that dictionaries evolve. The OED adds and removes words based on “common English usage” derived from current books, journals, newspapers and such.

    No doubt you’d still want some authority to bless the “true names” of things in the future and supply the official taxonomies. But, I predict that those “authorities” will increasingly rely on folksonomies to take the pulse of their communities.

    For example, if the AMA offered a “gated folksonomy” where only doctors could tag diseases with their observed symptoms, wouldn’t that be a pretty amazing (and authoritative) source for medical diagnosis?
    S. Jones    Oct 3, 06:05 PM    #


  4. It’s very simple.

    Authors (the people who write the information and understand the information they are creating) “INDEX” what they have written (this is an art form in itself).

    Readers can that add tags as they desire with the hope that someone else at some point will think they way they did and find the information that way.

    There should also be other hierarchical systems to find the information (date or topic/category for example).

    Mash them all up and you have a fairly standard methodology with the only new bit being the reader-led tags. Most people will use the “index” or just search the text.

    Yes?

    P.S. I haven’t read ALL of these posts but have read plenty for and against tags and tag clouds in the past six months.
    Gordon    Oct 6, 07:17 PM    #


  5. The social connected model implies that the connections are the important part, so that all you need is one tag, one key, to flow from place to place and discover all you need to know.

    This fallacy is precisely why you are tripping on the tag tip, yo. :-)

    There’s nothing about the web’s design whatsoever that bespeaks the sort of “one stop shopping” you seek from tagging. We all get along on the net by blindly browsing around, to some extent or another. Even search engine use is often (as an earlier commenter said) an iterative, time-consuming process.

    If there’s one complaint I have about tagging, it’s that I’d like richer tag associations at decision making time (immediate, dynamic tag clouds that narrow the choices of tags to associate with an article, given past tagging) and the fact that I now have much more choices about where to spend my time on the web – almost prohibitively so.
    Jeremy    Mar 20, 02:29 PM    #


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