May 2, 2005

Tim Bray Asks The Right Question (And I Try To Answer It)

Tim Bray asks a great question: “Are there any questions you want to ask, or jobs you want to do, where tags are part of the solution, and clearly work better than old-fashioned search?”

Here’s my answer, partial and in three parts.

- First, tags keep found things found. Search is about finding things, tags (in the mode) are about keeping them. Like many people, I stopped remembering things when the internets came along, and started remembering pointers to things instead. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to find something I read N months ago, and had to remember whether I saw it on slashboing or blogpop, or I had to recreate a multi-word search on Google. Tags, fby contrast, are thumbtacks with filters.

You could add that functionality to search directly, of course, but a) you’d still do it using tags and b) you’d miss all the places URLs come from when they don’t come from search, like IM, mail, and plain old clicking around. Search centers around the supplier. Tags center around the user, and any technology that recognizes that each user is the center of their world has good adoption characteristics.

- Second, tags add ‘people’ and ‘time’ as cross-cutting elements. provides a measure of social velocity — I have not worked in a development shop for some years, and would have missed the significance of the original Ajax article, but seeing the ferocity of attention on, I knew that something important was going on, not from reading the article, but from reading the userbase. Again, you can imagine adding this sort of thing to search, but you’d do it by watching what people tagged.

This is just one exemple of the ways that the addition of sorting on people+time is valuable. More, much more, is coming, by hanging new kinds of filtering and sorting off of those characteristics, including especially shared awareness among tagging groups, and the subsequent ability to search the group mind.

- Third, a look at the top tags on reveals several that could not work as part of a search. I cannot search directly for things toread, or things that are fun, funny, or cool, because those are in the eye of the beholder. I can’t search directly for tools or reference, because what I consider a tool or a reference work is different from what you do, and people writing things that I might think of as a tool or a reference work rarely label them that way.

That’s (part of) a longer answer — Tim’s question is the right one, and answering it is going to take a lot more effort than this post. The key element, though, is that demand is different than supply, retrieving is different than searching, and keeping is different than finding. Tags are demand-side tools allow us to do things that supply-side tools don’t.


  1. Is trackback dead, are comments on life support?

    Quoting from Trackback is dead. Are Comments dead too? ( I think it’s time we faced the fact that Trackback is dead. We should state up front – the aspirations behind Trackback were admirable. We should reassert that we understand that …

    Trackback by Radio Free Blogistan — May 2, 2005 @ 6:32 pm

  2. After Peter Morville tried to compare Flickr to Google at the IASummit a month ago, I wrote this: Why We Can’t Compare Folksonomies to Search.

    In a nutshell, my argument is that Tagging is personal, and Search is not. Tagging is, as Timo suggested in his intro, a crude formulation of the relationship of content and Us. There is no equivalent in Search, and a comparison isn’t really helpful.

    To answer Tim: the job I want to do is to make systems that better represent our own changing human mind. I think the personal quality of Tagging is getting toward that in a better way than Search is.

    Comment by Joshua Porter — May 2, 2005 @ 9:58 pm

  3. Tag Me Up, Tag Me Down

    Clay Shirky with a characteristically insightful article, responding to Tim Bray’s question “do we need tags?” on the new You’re It! blog (devoted entirely to tagging). Definitely worth the read. I particularly liked Clay’s point about adding “p…

    Trackback by Peer Pressure — May 3, 2005 @ 4:44 am

  4. [...] real post (other than introductions from blog members that were insightful in themselves), Clay addresses a question brought up by Tim Bray. The s [...]

    Pingback by Bokardo » A New Site on Tagging — May 3, 2005 @ 9:02 am

  5. How about online recipe databases? Put a tag on each ingredient in the recipe. I find tags for the ingredients I have at home right now – I find all the recipes I could make for dinner tonight.

    Some sites now offer checkboxes in a search site for main staples, but nothing as accurate as tags could provide!

    Comment by szlea — May 5, 2005 @ 12:18 pm

  6. The first part of your answer to Tim Bray’s questions (i.e. “tags keep found things found…”) was very intriguing because what you’re describing are basically bookmarks. Could tags be a replacement for bookmarks?

    Comment by browlands — May 9, 2005 @ 11:33 am

  7. [...] on (or even mentioned) the particular efforts in either of those fields. This is another answer to Tim Bray’s question: Taggers are good a [...]

    Pingback by You’re It! » Blog Archive » Dynamic Growth of Tag Clouds — May 24, 2005 @ 3:04 pm

  8. [...] all kinds of thoughts on the subject, such as Clay Shirky’s post on situations where tags are better than search. Related topics: Inte [...]

    Pingback by Kitten War and other random bits … :: tiffany b. brown // v 4.1 — April 29, 2006 @ 9:32 pm

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