September 8, 2007

Tagging: A Comparison With Three Characteristics Of Disruptive Innovations

In his comments on Is Tagging A Disruptive Innovation, Simon Edhouse raises a good point that merits some further discussion. Simon says,

“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.”

Theories and models describing innovation, the diffusion of innovation, technology change, and technology adoption abound. But I think there are three characteristics of disruptive innovations that bear on the question of tagging.

First, *innovations are only disruptive when they change an existing ecosystem.* The retractable cup holder in cars is a good example of an innovation that wasn’t disruptive. Did anyone – besides the dashboard cup tray people (and how many of them were there anyway…?) – go out of business after cup holders became standard in cars?

Contrast this with the introduction of the personal computer. To millions of individuals and small businesses, the personal computer was simply new: it was a new opportunity to purchase computing capability for a class of needs and situations not addressed by mainframes and minicomputers. But to Data General, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the other leaders of the thriving minicomputer ecosystem, the PC was a genuinely disruptive innovation.

Second, *disruptive innovations become visible only in retrospect*. Three separate events are necessary: first, a change in ecosystem; second, recognition of that change by the parties affected; finally, a change in the framing used to understand that ecosystem by all parties. Clayton’s description of packet switching [great example!] fully supports this understanding, so I’ll share it again.

…Packet-switching is a great example of an innovation whose value / impact / disruptive nature became apparent over time. In fact, most of the telecom industry regarded packet-switch based things as irrelevant because of the low quality. But low quality also often simply means “low cost” when judged by a different standard of reference.

Third, *a disruptive innovation is often something transposed or transplanted from another frame of reference*. Cubism, Fauvism and other Modernist styles and movements reflected the influence of transplanted Asian, African and other newly recognized art cultures on Western artists and their work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, the Dada and Surrealist movements have roots in the literary and artistic exploration of concepts and ideas from the field of Psychology.

How does this bear on tagging?

First, is the growth of tagging disrupting any existing ecosystems? Specifically, has tagging seismically affected the established IT or information management realms, the two existing ecosystems currently seen as the most likely candidates for disruption by tagging?

The consensus from the tagging community of interest is “No, but stay tuned.” Gene smith noted recently that the good people of LibraryThing are innovating their product / service offerings in ways that could directly impact the business of library catalog management, and the customer experience of a library catalog. While LibraryThing is clearly innovative, it’s not yet disrupted the information management ecosystem. Likewise, the new social bookmarking offerings from leading enterprise portal vendors reflect incremental incorporation of new capabilities, rather than wholesale shifts in the portal landscape. Flickr isn’t showing pictures of crowds of unemployed metadata management professionals standing on sidewalks outside former workplaces, holding signs that read, “Noteconomicallyviable“.

Second, is tagging disruptive in retrospect, in a way that indicates changing frames of reference? I think the answer to this is a qualified “Yes”. Tagging is in retrospect disruptive, but only for a small community. For David Weinberger and other early adopters who propose frames for a living, tagging has already passed through the two stages of disruption and recognition, and is in the midst of the third stage where it becomes part of a new or revised frame of reference.

However, for the rest of the world, though many people now tag on a daily basis (at least in limited contexts), tagging is not part of a new frame of reference. Tagging remains ‘below the cultural waterline’ in this stage of it’s growth curve.As Simon says, “To speculate whether ‘tagging’ by itself is a ‘disruptive innovation’ is, I’m sure, premature.”

Third, is tagging genuinely new, or is tagging a transplant from an existing frame? I believe social tagging is new to most frames of reference, and not a transplant. Tagging in the sense of applying labels meant to serve as some sort of metadata to a collection of resources – for a group or individual – is a very old idea. But explicitly social tagging that results in the collective creation of clouds of tags seems definitively new*.

That makes approximately one and one-half matches out of three. Hitting .500 is outstanding in baseball, but I don’t believe it is enough to qualify tagging as a disruptive innovation.

*If you consider social tagging as a straightforward transplanting of social media mechanisms and concepts to the established realms of metadata and information management, then you’re clearly a member of the small community of people that thinks about both social media and information management on a regular basis. Compared to the number of people who think about major league sports on a regular basis, this is not a large group, which takes us back to the idea that tagging is disruptive only retrospectively, and for a select community.


  1. This is a bit of a 2-way conversation, but I guess if we keep going others will contribute.

    Thanks Joe for highlighting the ‘orders of magnitude’ idea. Little disruptions don’t change the overall market, or render previous approaches obsolete. Discussions about being ‘disruptive’ should be about the big changes. So, let’s turn up the lighting in here and focus on some essentials.

    a) I think speculation or discussion about whether tagging is a disruptive innovation or not, indicates one thing… that it clearly is not. If it was, it would be obvious, to everyone.

    b) This kind of speculation is also difficult when the actual meaning of the term ‘tagging’ is so open to interpretation. (tagging has been described on this site as a ‘technology’, when a dictionary definition of ‘technology’ clearly fits the phenomenon very poorly)

    The quotation from Clayton Christensen about ‘packet-switching’ highlighted by Joe is instructive. I think it is obvious to everyone that packet-switching has been part of a huge disruptive phenomenon, but it did not do so on its own.

    Let’s not jinx it… these things take a while. ~ I would encourage discussion back to the primary building blocks relevant to the area. Let’s build understanding on a solid shared premise and foundation.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — September 8, 2007 @ 11:42 pm

  2. The silence in here is deafening…

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — September 29, 2007 @ 1:54 am

  3. What is it with this site?

    I put some energy into stimulating discussion here last year, but there has not been a new post since last September! ~ If none of you tagaholics want to drink at the bar any more, then open up the blog for some fresh input and ideas from people with new perspectives to offer.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — May 29, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  4. Glad you’re still interested in talking / thinking about tagging, Ed.

    Gene Smith recently published a book titled ‘Tagging: People Powered Metadata For the Web’, and so stands to be interested in the subject.

    What’s on your mind these days re: tagging?

    Comment by joelamantia — June 3, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  5. “these days”… hmmm… Well, firstly, you refer to me as “Ed”. Does that mean we should call you “Lam”?…

    “What’s on my mind these days re: tagging” You ask that question as if “tagging” was,’so passé’.

    I wouldn’t know where to begin answering such a question… Its a subject of considerable interest for me.

    But let me start here… I’ve been watching this blog almost weekly since last September when I posted ‘comment 1′ on September 8th last year – [excerpt below:]

    “…I would encourage discussion back to the primary building blocks relevant to the area. Let’s build understanding on a solid shared premise and foundation.”

    Then on September 29th… I wrote “The silence is deafening”… (comment 2) Finally in May 2008 Comment 3 (above)is basically saying, like “WTF?”

    i.e. This is meant to be a “Blog on Tagging” and the ‘Tag Team” (apparently) includes:

    * Alexandra Samuel
    * Christian Crumlish
    * Clay Shirky
    * David Weinberger
    * Don Turnbull
    * Gene Smith
    * Joe Lamantia
    * Jon Lebkowsky
    * Peter Merholz
    * Thomas Vander Wal
    * Timo Hannay

    But, its in fact like a Ghost town… It just seems odd to me to start a blog like this, have all these luminaries listed as “team” then let it languish.

    I’m an interested bystander, and now, I guess a friendly provocateur… So, I could turn the question back on “the team”, what’s on your collective minds about “tagging”?

    There’s actually a lot going on all around the world, but here, on a site that staked a claim to being something akin to ‘tag-central’, its a hub of inactivity.

    As Seth Godin says: “Ideas that spread, win”… that simple but insightful statement has some relevance I reckon.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — June 8, 2008 @ 12:07 am

  6. Simon,

    Sincere apologies for a cut and paste error that has me calling you by the wrong name; that’s what I get for writing late at night. Now on to your points.

    I don’t think tagging is passe (nice use of the proper accent mark, btw) – but it is no longer in the spotlight. This is a good thing, for reasons I’ve discussed before.

    You’re It! has been quiet for a while now. Some of the authors on the masthead are focused on other subjects – e.g. Clay Shirky has a new book out. Some are more closely connected to the subject of tagging, however it is defined, such as Gene Smith, and Thomas Vander Wal, who is writing a book now. I’ve been working on other areas, so haven’t had anything original to add to the conversation.

    Practically, this means the floor / podium / mic regarding tagging really is yours at the moment.

    So, from one friendly provocateur to another, what’s on your mind about tagging…?

    Comment by joelamantia — June 11, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  7. I could write a pretty good article about tagging, but I am a little busy at the moment. ~ The stuff that’s really on my mind can’t be discussed in the public domain… but I will share a few interesting Japanese and Chinese tag-related links:

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — June 12, 2008 @ 9:54 am

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