Deb Richardson (aka dria) wrote a long thoughtful article on tagging at the Mozilla wiki a month and a half ago. I just noticed it now because I read that the Firefox team is considering some upgrades to the browser chrome and in the newsgroup post where some of the ideas were floated there was a reference to something called the “Places” UI. While reading up on that I found dria’s On Tagging article.
In it, she expresses a lack of interest in social bookmarking services (mainly for privacy reasons) but floats some ideas about how the browser could enable tagging, essentially as a replacement for the typical poor-scaling bookmark element we all know and fail to love.
“Bookmarks Are Dead,” she writes. “All Hail Tagging”:
My idea is that we replace bookmarks entirely with the tagging concept. Instead of bookmarking a page, subscribing to an RSS feed, blah blah, you just tag it. Tagging an item automatically stashes that URL into your profile’s tags file/database. If you’re tagging a web feed, it automatically turns it into a Live bookmark (although we need to get rid of the “bookmark” term entirely…it’s not a book).
I already have the Firefox delicious extension installed, so I’m ready for tightly integrated tagging directly in the browser interface.
Over at 37 Signals, the post that inspired Tim’s widget (see previous entry here) discusses how tagging has been implemented in any number of ways at different popular sites.
Should tags be separated by spaces? If so, then how do you indicate multiword tags (hyphens, underscores, CamelCase, quotation marks?), or should tags be separated by commas (my preference)?
When each tag box you encounter does things differently it’s hard to keep know what to do.
Tim Appnel’s written some great plugins for Movable Type and now he’s got a slick tag plugin called Tags.App that converts MT’s hierarchical categories into tags:
The basis of Tags.App was originally developed for The O’Reilly Radar weblog … back in March. It essentially brought tagging to MT. It provides the means to dynamically navigate tags and see tag intersections, in addition to display tag data as lists and clouds. In the last release I added the ability to view tags across multiple weblogs and create tag clouds from other data sources.
Note that Tags.App is a commercial product. Tim also offers a free scaled-down version of the plugin called mt-tagslite.
Compare with the Tags plugin provided as part of the “official” Power Tools collection, which uses the keywords field.
Another tag option for MT is Tagwire, which differentiates itself from Tags.app and Tagslite by its support of multilingual tagging and the use of the keywords field, leaving categories separate. According to its creator, it can “[lead] to performance degradation especially for rebuilding, but Tagwire employs PluginData and Request Cache effectively and achieves enough speed.” Also: “Though Tagwire generates no static tag archives, it couples with Tim Appnel’s MT-XSearch and supports Dynamic Tag Archiving.”
Last week I got the chance to talk to Peter Morville about his recent article Authority, his excellent new book Ambient Findability, and the future when everything will be taggable.
As usual Peter has some provocative ideas. I’ve asked him to watch the comments here, so feel free to post your comments or ask questions.
Gene: How is authority related to findability?
Peter: My authority article stirred up a fascinating discussion on Web4Lib centered around this question. Historically, librarians have been comfortable with the notion that the most frequently cited academic papers (and their authors) are also the most popular, findable, and authoritative. But many are horrified by the migration of this concept to the public web. In truth, the comparison is not totally fair. Scholars invest more thought and structure into their citations than we invest in our links. But the revolution in authority is real. In a world where we can select our sources and choose our news, we must increasingly make our own decisions about what to believe and who to trust. And thanks to the well-documented anchoring bias, we’re highly influenced by the first information we find. In this sense, Google’s algorithms are as much about authority as relevance. And this is why the subtitle of Ambient Findability is “What We Find Changes Who We Become.”
I know many people who don’t get tagging. Do you think tagging is a novelty? Or can you see some persistent value in it that will keep tags around?
I hate tagging. It’s too much work. It’s so much easier to drag and drop an email message into a folder than it is to construct keywords that define its aboutness. And with respect to refindability, using Google Desktop’s full text search is infinitely better than relying on the semantic poverty of tags. On the other hand, as one element of Google’s multi-algorithmic search solution, tags in the form of links are a wonderful source of collective intelligence. Also, as ubiquitous computing yields an Internet of (non-textual) objects, user-defined tags will be important alongside the manufacturer-supplied metadata.
If “it’s so much easier to drag and drop an email message into a folder than it is to construct keywords that define its aboutness” then what do you do when an email fits equally well in multiple folders?
I’m an impatient information architect. I spend no more time organizing than absolutely necessary. When faced with this taxonomic dilemma, I used to agonize for a few seconds before deciding which folder to use. Once every few thousand messages, I would decide the message was important enough to cross-list in multiple folders, so I’d make a copy. But now, I never cross-list, and I generally agonize for less than a split second, because I know it doesn’t really matter which folder I use, since I have Google Desktop. I can’t wait until all my books, clothes, keys, remote controls, and other physical possessions have RFID tags, so I can search for them too.
With respect to personal information architecture, less is more.
Can you elaborate a bit on how tags–user-added descriptive metadata–will help us navigate the internet of objects?
A big difference between barcodes and RFID tags is that barcodes identify a product category whereas RFID tags also identify the product as a unique object. So, if you consider the way that Amazon starts with manufacturer-supplied metadata, but then allows users to enhance that base explicity (by adding customer reviews) and through their behavior (navigation and purchasing), and you extend that model to a world where we can tag the product as a discrete object with a history and a location and an owner, you begin to get an idea of where things are headed. Imagine an eBay where you can learn about the history of every object that’s for sale.
Users will be able to tag objects, but that’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle. We haven’t even begun to talk about the embedded sensors that will add eyes and ears (and senses we humans lack) to our objects. Things are about to get very weird.
In your article you downplay the significance of tagging on del.icio.us and Flickr. But in del.icio.us we find a kind of authority as well–the URL that has been tagged hundreds or thousands of times. (Jesse James Garrett’s Ajax article is a good example of this.)
Isn’t this tag-driven authority the same as the collective intelligence we find at work in Wikipedia? Or put another way, what’s the difference between the del.icio.us hive mind and the Wikipedia hive mind that makes the latter authoritative and the former not?
In some ways, an article that’s been frequently tagged in del.icio.us possesses more authority than a Wikipedia article that may have been written or re-written by a single ignorant user. I love the Wikipedia, but outside the most popular, highly edited articles, you’ve got to seriously question (and cross-reference) your sources. In other words, there’s not a whole lot of collective intelligence in the long tail of the Wikipedia. For me, what’s important, is that as a society we’re beginning to examine what we mean by authority, and we’re finding it’s a very slippery concept. As I argue in Ambient Findability, “Like relevance, authority is subjective and ascribed by the viewer.” Not many people agree with me yet. But they will.
What do you think of Yahoo’s My Web 2.0 that integrates search, tags and social networks?
To be honest, until you asked the question, I’d never heard of it. After giving it a very quick look, I’d say it’s too complicated for anyone outside the geekorati. For now, I’ll stick with Google.
You say the future is multi-algorithmic. Google’s search relevance algorithms have often been called objective (sometimes even by the company itself). What’s your take on this — can algorithms be objective?
Assuming that by objective we mean “free from bias,” algorithms for data retrieval (where there are right and wrong answers) and information retrieval (where answers are more or less relevant to a particular user) can be objective. It’s hard (but perhaps not impossible) to argue that traditional full text retrieval algorithms possess bias.
However, Google’s multi-algorithmic solution is not even close to objective.
Google’s algorithms are optimized to produce the greatest advertising revenue to Google Inc. in the short-term and the greatest shareholder value to GOOG in the long-term. To be fair, Google has exercised great restraint. They understand that for long-term success, Google must provide the most useful results and the best user experience, so they have maintained a clean interface, and they haven’t yet tilted their algorithms too far towards commerce.
But we can already see a subtle bias towards the types of web sites most likely to host Google’s sponsored links. This partially explains why Google searches on “melanoma” and “breast cancer” don’t present the authoritative content from the National Cancer Institute in the first few hits. Government web sites are not great clients for advertising, so Google doesn’t like .gov.
This is why I like Yahoo! Mindset. It uncovers the hidden bias and puts the user in charge of the algorithms. Algorithmic openness is a great strategy for Yahoo! I’m not sure Google can maintain its algorithmic secrecy indefinitely without consequence. I’m in favor of more transparent, user-configurable algorithms.
We’ve hardly mastered user experience on the web and now we’re facing a future where the detritus of our lives will be “tagged” with RFID chips. How do we design for ambient findability?
The user experience will begin with a keyword search, but we’ll have all sorts of new facets and filters for refining our query. I may want to Google my possessions or the contents of my house or your bookshelf. Last week I went to the shopping mall for the first (and last) time this year. It was a horrible experience. I had to physically drag my body from store to store in search of a specific product. I desperately wanted to Google the Mall. And thanks to RFID, it may not be too long before that’s possible. Of course, Endeca may be a better choice than Google, since their Guided Navigation approach fits perfectly with an increasingly faceted future.
Of course, it’s tough to predict how this will all pan out. A few futurists including Adam Greenfield, Mike Kuniavsky, Bruce Sterling, and myself have written about the user experience in a world of ambient findability, but we’re only scratching the surface, and we’re all probably suffering from apophenia anyway.
Tim O’Reilly was recently quoted as saying that collective intelligence is the innovation that will most alter how we live in the next few years. What do you think?
Collective intelligence existed before humans could speak (or tag). The waggle dance of honeybees is all about the wisdom of the crowd (and finding the best food). So is gossip. So is the stock market. But I agree with Tim that the Web (or Web 2.0 if you prefer) is spreading the hive mind into far more nooks and crannies than we could have imagined only a few years ago. So get ready to be found. Collective intelligence is coming to a niche near you.
I meant to post this quite some time ago but there’s no time like the present.
Kent Bye from Echo Chamber Project sent me some links describing the tag-cloud implementation for Drupal he’s been speccing out:
I finished a couple of posts that further specify a Drupal tag cloud – the font distribution algorithm has lots of graphics of my Power Law distribution of tags.
I created a couple of posts that specify some of my ideas for tagadelic additions (let me know of others who might be able to help manifest an automatic tag cloud that can be personalized by user or identity):
The first post walks through the evolution of the font distribution algorithm for a tagadelic tag cloud.
There are a lot of graphs to help you see how I came up with the algorithm based upon my free-tagging data from my site.
I also came up with three flowcharts for creating different types of tag clouds.
The first one is the most basic implementation that uses all tags from all users.
The second takes into account specific category vocabularies as well as all of the nodes from specific user uids.
The third creates a tag cloud based upon the identity of a group of users (in my case pro-war and anti-war).