July 21, 2007

Is Tagging A Disruptive Innovation?

Regarding my post Tagging and the Hype Cycle, Xian said:

…You write: “Tagging does not seek to displace existing technologies or entrenched vendors” but are there not automated taxonomy generating tools that might be disrupted by the widespread adoption of tagging?

More broadly, isn’t tagging something of a threat to top-down ontology and taxonomy approaches?

Great to see some chatter here to dispell the “trough” idea.

Indeed there are classes of existing metadata management tools which may suffer a decline as the practice of social / distributed tagging spreads. And tagging can also be seen as a challenge to top-down approaches, with the corollary of it being a challenge to the software tools / services / hardware connected to those approaches. Good points, both.

I should make clear that I’m drawing boundaries for the conversation at this first step, looking at tagging as it compares to and contrasts with the other common candidates for the Hype Cycle style analysis Keller offered. That means comparing tagging to the broad class of IT solutions tracked by the (now myriad) Hype Cycles, and, amongst other analyst offerings, their close cousins the Forrester Waves (there must be almost 200 of each by now…). These solutions are themselves parts of the larger IT ecosystem which includes well defined roles (a bit like niches) for all the parties involved; vendor, buyer, partner, competitor, regulator, etc.

In these terms, it is difficult to identify direct market actors (business or otherwise) associated with tagging. To date, there are few potential or actual agents trying to take on any of the above roles available in the IT ecosystem. There are some recently available tagging solutions – in the traditional style of software you lease / install / subscribe to – offered for purchase. Does anyone know how well they are selling…?

Thus, I don’t think the Hype Cycle comparison holds. In simple financial terms, I’m not aware of anyone making or losing substantial amounts of money specifically in relation to tagging. For many reasons, tagging has not yet emerged – and may never emerge – as a category of technology investment and activity for businesses.

Moving forward, Xian’s done good work reframing the conversation to address another level. Xian’s questions shift the discussion outside the tight boundaries I drew, to consider the impact of tagging on existing solutions for metadata management and related parties. And underlying this impact assessment is the larger question of whether tagging is a disruptive innovation: will tagging change the shape of the metadata management ecosystem? Will tagging lead to new niches?

In comparison to established metadata management solutions, tagging shows several of the characteristics of disruptive innovations:

  • tagging is cheaper
  • tagging has low entry barriers
  • tagging is self-service

Not coincidentally, these attributes are the centerpieces of Clay Shirky’s earlier arguments in favor of tagging, and there is no need to revisit them in depth.

But there is still debate about the specifics of these attributes. For example, in what ways is tagging cheaper? And in what contexts (maybe not for me)? Or does tagging simply distribute costs differently; perhaps over time (pay now, or pay later…), or across actors (is free really free for *you*?), or by manifesting costs in different ways (time is often money. so is quality. so are mistakes)?

The conversations playing out around these questions indicate progress in how well tagging is understood. But they also demonstrate that the major cultural and organizational shifts in thinking – shifts that pave the way for people to invest, build, buy, and do all the other things that drive changes in the ecosystem – are still underway.

Though it’s been a few years since tagging became visible, it seems too early to understand what kind of changes – if any – will occur in the metadata management ecosystem as a result of tagging’s emergence. In the meantime, insights and examples of tagging’s impact from those better-informed (or more insightful) are welcome.


  1. I think its important to recognize that there are many potential disruptive-innovations that will not end up being credited with that illustrious title. In other words they really need to actually ‘disrupt’ something significant to earn that distinction.

    Many different technologies, platforms or applications may be ‘potential’ disruptions, but may fall by the wayside, change, or join forces with other forces and be transformed and possibly end up ‘disrupting’. But I think we all know that a real ‘disruptive innovation’ needs to not cause a little disruption, but rather have a seismic affect on industries, in the “IT ecosystem” as Joe noted.

    To speculate whether ‘tagging’ by itself is a ‘disruptive innovation’ is, I’m sure, premature. There’s definitely something going on though, isn’t there?

    I think ‘tagging’ is part of a larger disruptive process in mid-transition, but it will involve various other forces and like in the case of packet-switching, in the end is likely to lead to a ‘new-market’ disruptive innovation. To quote Clayton Christensen from an article in the Economist (’The Blood of Incumbents’ Oct 28 2004)

    “…the packet-switching technology developed by Cisco and others — wasn’t good enough to be used in the voice telecommunications market, so it took root in a less demanding application, data transmission. Little by little, it got better and better and now you can send a voice signal over the Internet. That’s a good example of a (new market) disruptive innovation.”

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — July 22, 2007 @ 8:54 am

  2. What is the larger movement that tagging is part of, as you see it? What other forces are involved?

    Do you mean that tagging plus other forces will create a new market, one that then disrupts existing markets?

    Comment by joelamantia — September 3, 2007 @ 12:18 am

  3. Indeed you could call it a ‘movement’, but in fact I referred to it as being part of a ‘larger disruptive process’… I prefer the latter, because ‘movement’ implies a socially cohesive group and I don’t see that.

    If you examine the greatest drivers of growth on the web, myspace,facebook, youtube et al, and then look at applications like messenger, skype, Napster, eDonkey etc looking for common attributes, you will find what Umair Haque calls ‘edge competencies’~ the whirring activity of ordinary people, and tagging is part of that…

    Second part of your question, Yes most certainly.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — September 4, 2007 @ 9:53 am

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