Deprecated: Function set_magic_quotes_runtime() is deprecated in /home/mwexler/public_html/tp/textpattern/lib/txplib_db.php on line 14
The Net Takeaway: I Hate "Tags"


Danny Flamberg's Blog
Danny has been marketing for a while, and his articles and work reflect great understanding of data driven marketing.

Eric Peterson the Demystifier
Eric gets metrics, analytics, interactive, and the real world. His advice is worth taking...

Geeking with Greg
Greg Linden created Amazon's recommendation system, so imagine what can write about...

Ned Batchelder's Blog
Ned just finds and writes interesting things. I don't know how he does it.

R at LoyaltyMatrix
Jim Porzak tells of his real-life use of R for marketing analysis.







I Hate "Tags" · 02/04/2005 03:14 PM, MetaBlog

Update: Lots of traffic to this link from some very nice blogs and 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

Now, back to your regularly scheduled reading…


There is this whole movement currently about lazy ontologies, referred to as “tagging”. I started to mention this about my complaints on the Simpy bookmark manager site, in my post about Furl.

This has started to gain steam with the addition of tags to other information management sites (Sorry, I meant “social” sites, which are really the same thing, even if no one believes me). For those not familiar with the term, the idea is that people can just label information chunks (bookmarks, photos, blog entries, wikipedia entries, whatever) with whatever term they like, and if you are want to use that categorization to later locate this information or related concepts, you have to guess what crazy word other people are applying to the concept this week.

For example, on this site, I might label a posting as being in the “Database” category. Others might prefer to tag it as “Oracle”, “Data Mining”, or whatever they want. For their own personal use, that’s grand, but when its part of a shared social structure, its not really helping. And now the “bologsphere” has decided that its more useful and powerful than an ordered and structured ontology.

David of Technorati fame has written about it for the AlwaysOn network, read it here.

He mentions this article by Clay Shirky about this rise of unconstrained taxonomies, called folksonomy.

Now, both of these guys are very, very smart… and they are very, very wrong.

A few points from Clay, since he started it all:

“The advantage of folksonomies isn’t that they’re better than controlled vocabularies, it’s that they’re better than nothing, because controlled vocabularies are not extensible to the majority of cases where tagging is needed.”

Um, ok, so we can say that doing the wrong thing is better than nothing? And if a controlled vocabulary is not extensible, then its the wrong choice. A properly designed taxonomy is extensible by its very nature: It describes and organizes a set of data.

“Furthermore, users pollute controlled vocabularies, either because they misapply the words, or stretch them to uses the designers never imagined, or because the designers say “Oh, let’s throw in an ‘Other’ category, as a fail-safe” which then balloons so far out of control that most of what gets filed gets filed in the junk drawer.”

Umm… again, we say we don’t like taxonomies because they get misused? So, its the screwdriver’s fault that its hard to nail with it? Its so hypocritical: People are more than willing to accept some difficulties of working with tech, but then unilaterally decide “Oh, this is too hard. I don’t want to learn how I should to it so it works; I’ll just throw my way at it. After all, it works for me, why not make everyone else have to figure it out?”

Because that what it comes down to: either learn the proper use of a shared taxonomy, or try to figure out how each person chose to organize their content. If you are trying to share, I don’t think this latter is the best approach. It’s like telling people your address, but using non-euclidean coordinates. If they can figure it out, they are welcome to visit.

“Any comparison of the advantages of folksonomies vs. other, more rigorous forms of categorization that doesn’t consider the cost to create, maintain, use and enforce the added rigor will miss the actual factors affecting the spread of folksonomies. Where the internet is concerned, betting against ease of use, conceptual simplicity, and maximal user participation, has always been a bad idea.”

Basically, he’s transferring the cost away from the tagger… and onto the user. Actually, the best bet is simplicity x utility. Ease of use is not the same as utility: folksonomies will stay only as long as good terms are chosen that others can “grasp”. Once we recognize that we are all using 20 different terms for the same thing, and that’s making info hard to access… then we recognize (sigh, yet again) why an organized typology makes sense.

Ok, this is long enough. You get my point: The relaxing of standards around the information organization increases the cost to access the information. We rely on Google now, but we should have other ways to get to information and enhance it than phrase presense. “Folksonomies” are just delaying the useful organization in terms of a short sighted, fun approach.

And I like fun, but when you need to find something and can’t because people are using trendy and impossible to understand terms to organize it… suddenly, it ain’t so fun.

PS: Who am I to argue with the amazing Dan Bricklin, but I disagree with him too, to some extent: My paraphrase of his approach is Authors shouldn’t tag, but readers should. I think if readers would tag with an eye toward use by others, then maybe its ok… but we know no one will.

PPS: Good article in Salon unabashedly supporting tagging with some great quotes: “This isn’t a big technical innovation,” says Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext. “It’s more the simplest thing that could possibly work, that shouldn’t work, but happens to.” and “The system doesn’t have to be perfect to work well enough for participants to find it useful”. Again, after using all the major “tagging” sites and approaches, I have yet to see much of an aspect of “works” and “useful”, unless you define them as “entertainment” and “fun”. Perhaps I am using the wrong tags to understand tagging… but then, that’s my point, isn’t it…

PPS: Danny Sullivan is, as usual, smarter than the average bear, and he sees what I’ve seen: tagging isn’t new, and hasn’t, to date, shown huge value for searching…

* * *


  1. “Once we recognize that we are all using 20 different terms for the same thing, and that’s making info hard to access… then we recognize (sigh, yet again) why an organized typology makes sense.”

    However, because searching for any of those 20 different categorizations pulls up the same information, it actually becomes easier find that piece of information. No?
    Super Weiss    Oct 18, 03:14 AM    #

  2. Not really, no. If you assume each tag is equally relevant, informative, or commonly used, then that would be the case. However, some quick digging reveals that more tags usually means that people are assigning personal definitions, not universally accepted terms. So, a better phrasing might be: ”...20 different terms, few of which are really synonyms…”

    So, if I tag a link with the word ipod, that certainly makes it easier to find that link; ipod is one of the most commonly used and clearly defined terms out there. Of course, if that link is about the history of phone books, its not really helpful nor correct for most users, though to me it might mak e perfect (twisted) sense. Chances are, the other terms might be more relevant and synonymous… but that seems to be rarer than you might expect.

    Again, the value of a tag should be as an access mechanism. If its your personal typology and you don’t want to share, have fun. But since all this is about sharing, using 20 different terms for the same thing, many of which are really not the same doesn’t make it more likely, it actually obfuscates the value and relevance.

    Yes, I may stumble on one of these words and that reveals this perfect link… but do we consider the stumble approach a good access method?
    Michael Wexler    Oct 18, 08:00 AM    #

  3. I’m the creator of a new “social bookmarking” site, and crazily enough, I think the tagging/folksonomy sites (as currently implemented) are basically useless. They’re nothing more than glorified FFA’s as far as I’m concerned. That’s what prompted It’s more of a Wiki-Web-Directory where anyone can edit. (Like dmoz ala Wikipedia style.) Please give it a try and tell me what you think. There are voting mechanisms in place for anti-spam and ranking. In addition, each user can custom-sort a page’s entries to his own liking. Let me know if you like the navigation and search features—it’s more “Web 2.0” than anything out there—IMHO.
    Matt Fausey    Jan 21, 01:53 PM    #

  4. PS> was launched on 11-Jan-2006, so it’s only about 10 days old. We know there are still about a zillion features to add—but please do tell me what you’d like to see. Send email to me (Matt Fausey) at Thanks!
    Matt Fausey    Jan 21, 01:56 PM    #

  5. I think the problems with tags start even earlier, before thinking about actually sharing information. I despise them, also when it’s only about organizing stuff for myself.

    Today, flickr (and even Adobe) tells me that I should organize my photos by using tags. Delicious tells me that I should organize my bookarks as tags. And so on. They all see it as the new, hip way of organizing information, while in fact it is much more complicated and demanding than any more structural method could be. Organizing bookmarks in a hierarchical folder structure fits how our brains are wired – we always try to sort things into disjoint categories. If I decide what those categories and hierarchies are like, I’m not forced to adapt to some fixed terminology either. But I do not have to think about all the aspects that I want to have a tag for, every time I create a new bookmark. Because later, when I will be searching for some of them, chances are that in no case will I get ALL the results I would like to have, because for some of them I just forgot to add one or the other tag, or I just felt like using another word that day, intentionally or unconsciously.

    Basically, I see tagging as a nice addition to some “disjoint method” of organizing information. But if it’s the only thing there is, it’s basically just a fun thing to do for people with too much time on their hands. Like you said, it’s “fun” and “entertaining,” but not by a long shot a serious way of organizing information, if you hope to ever retrieve it again.

    Daniel Saner    Jun 12, 11:31 AM    #

  Textile Help
Please note that your email will be obfuscated via entities, so its ok to put a real one if you feel like it...

powered by Textpattern 4.0.4 (r1956)