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 del.icio.us 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. del.icio.us 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 del.icio.us, 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 del.icio.us 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.