July 18, 2007

The Tagging Hype Cycle

In Tag history and gartners hype cycles, Philipp Keller, riffing on Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycles’, has put together a brief history capturing his view of the major developments in tagging, and mapped this chronological listing of events to the five stages of the common Gartner Technology Hype Cycle.

Tagging Hype Cycle

In support of this comparison, Keller cites Gartner’s definition of the Trough of disillusionment:

“The point at which the technology becomes unfashionable and the press abandons the topic, because the technology did not live up to its overinflated expectations.”

Keller then continues:

This is the phase we’re in now. There are no blog posts any more. Tagging is not really unfashionable but the topic is “done” à la «if that’s all what’s tagging adds to the web experience, I’m not interested in this technology any more». There isn’t much thinking and innovation going on.

Philipp’s retrospective is useful, if not complete. But from a quick scan of the many streams related to tagging, it is clear that tagging is the subject of a considerable amount of activity across a variety of fronts ranging from conceptual understanding, to tools, to best practices. (Time allowing, I’ll revisit the current activity around tagging at a later date.)

The more important issue to address is that Keller is wrong to apply the Hype Cycle frame to tagging in the first place. Since framing substantially dictates the terms and tone of the conversation possible around a subject, getting it right is important; think here of Thank You For Smoking’s pithy distinction between the likely outcomes of arguments vs. negotiations.

Tagging in fact shows few characteristics of the enterprise technologies that Gartner’s Hype Cycle is built around. In no particular order, some of the key differences distinguishing tagging from a Hype Cycle candidate technology are:

Which leads to the inevitable question, “What is a good frame for tagging?” Is tagging a a technology (a construct defined more by the conflict around it’s meaning than by agreement)?

Or is tagging an essential social capability, i.e. an attribute of a healthy social entity of some kind? These entities may be either exclusively virtual (as with the social bookmarking and other virtual object sharing services); or they may be “virtureal”, representing existing objects / networks in the virtual realm, thereby blurring the boundaries between realspace and infospace.

Andrew McAfee of HBS includes tags as one of the key elements of Enterprise 2.0 (see Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration). This framing advocates for tagging as a cultural component, one of the larger set of characteristics that defines the new social and collaborative enterprise.

Some exploratory ecological framings consider tags as a constituent element of information ecologies of various kinds, subject to the dynamics of complex systems, thus implicitly positioning them as defacto environmental subsystems, which approaches the notion of tagging as an ecological service akin to pollination, and presumably the byproduct of agents within the ecosystem.

Because the core notions of [the new, social] tagging [paradigm] reject the validity of exclusionary single-point-of-reference framing as a practice, it is quite likely that effective frames for tagging will reflect elements or aspects of these existing frames, and also include other forms we haven’t yet conceived or articulated. These new frames will surely emerge with time, from better understanding of the new world ahead – what Dr. David Weinberger (a sometime contributor to this blog) describes as the Third order of order.

Or maybe Gene Smith’s (also a contributor to You’re It!) upcoming tagging book will explain everything – go Gene!


  1. Lots of good food for thought in there. Thanks, Joe!

    One quibble. 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.

    Comment by xian — July 20, 2007 @ 8:08 pm

  2. This is an interesting discussion, and I feel I can contribute. I should just say firstly that I am an entrepreneur working on a new type of application that uses tags in a fundamentally new way, so my comments are colored by my deep conviction that tagging as a medium is only just getting started.

    I agree with Joe that Phillip Keller is applying the ‘Hype Cycle’ inappropriately in this case. The most obvious reason is of course that ‘tags’ are not a ‘technology’, if anything they are more like a communication medium. They communicate human interest or intent.

    However, tags are at the moment, many things to many people, but really the current form of ‘tag’ to which this blog refers, had its genesis as the ‘html-tag’ back at the beginning of the web in the early 1990’s.

    Lots of people learned html and started to understand that an html-tag could point to anything. So, Keller’s Tagging Hype Cycle mis-identifies tagging as a technology and also mistakes the start of the phenomenon.

    Comment by Simon Edhouse — July 22, 2007 @ 8:12 am

  3. Hi Joe

    Thanks a lot for the insightful feedback to my blog post.

    I must confess that I’m not into enterprise at all so I just stumbled over that explanation of hype cycles, thought: “Oh, this applies amazingly well to the tag history as I experienced it” and that was it. So thank you for making things clear.

    I agree with you that tagging is not this kind of “first order technology”. The whole “web 2.0″ thing probably applies better (or are there other good examples of technologies that apply to those hype cycles?)

    But then, I still think the “Hype cycle” describes quite well what happened to tagging. Or do you say that tagging is still hyped? You say “I’ll revisit the current activity around tagging at a later date”. I’d love to hear that. I’d love to hear some new innovation going on. Am I just missing it or is there not much around?

    Comment by phred_pui — July 22, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  4. I just found a document of Gartner themselves that says which “technology” they put where: http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?doc_cd=140881&ref=g_SiteLink

    Tagging isn’t part of this list – I suppose because it is too small in comparison with the things mentioned in this list.

    But Joe, can you explain why Tagging shouldn’t be in this list when RSS, Blogging and Wikis are part of that list?

    Comment by phred_pui — August 18, 2007 @ 10:39 am

  5. Phillipp,

    Without reading the whole Hype Cycle in detail, I have two thoughts: First, this is an emerging technologies and collaboration Hype Cycle. Gartner may track tagging in the metadata / taxonomy category.

    Second, I think the lack of commercialization around tagging affects the way that Gartner regards the whole subject. Gartner sells it’s analysis to lots of customers thinking of spending money on technology. If it doesn’t cost money, the perceived risks of the technology are lower, and the big analysis firms pay less attention, because their customers see less need to pay for analysis. If there’s no market, they’re smart enough not to create product that won’t sell.

    However, as this blog mentions in my most recent post, tagging is entering the phase of commercial innovation – where would-be sellers invest money and time in an effort to create products or services for sale to customers.

    As I’m not an enterprise IT buyer, I think we’ll simply have to wait and see how well these attempts to ‘productize’ tagging work out.

    Comment by joelamantia — September 1, 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  6. Thanks Joe, this makes things clearer now. I updated my post, do you agree with my update?

    Comment by phred_pui — September 2, 2007 @ 9:25 am

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