Tag, You’re It!
I remember when del.icio.us first came on the scene, and the extent of my thoughts at the time were “isn’t that a clever way to use a .us domain name.” I really didn’t think anything of it until we were changing computers at work and I was worried I’d lose my bookmarks. So I created a del.icio.us account and moved all my work bookmarks in there. Turns out my bookmarks all transferred anyway, so I haven’t really used my account since. Once again, this is largely a matter of convenience. Since I’m at the same computer at work each day and the same computer at home each day, I almost never have to access the bookmarks on one computer from another. So I never really had the need to use del.icio.us. I could see myself using it instead of bookmarks if Firefox has a del.icio.us add-on that functions like the bookmarks do, but until I need to access my bookmarks from anywhere I probably won’t use it.
But the much bigger story here is the concept of tagging. Tagging is what has really revolutionized information retrieval on the Web. Well, that and Google’s remarkable matrices and spiders. See, for those of us in the information biz, we’ve been relying on a form of tagging to retrieve information for decades. It’s called the Library of Congress Subject Headings. This is a controlled vocabulary list of terms that allow us to always find related books under the same heading. That way, instead of one person filing a book on the road bike races under “Bicycles” and another person under “Bike racing” and another person under “Racing– Bicycles,” we’ll always find it under “Cycling.”
The problem is that the controlled vocabulary isn’t especially intuitive. Everyone’s favorite example is that books about cooking are filed under “Cookery.” What the heck is cookery? Well, when someone was trying to figure out what to file books about cooking under, the term they chose was “cookery;” probably completely understandable at the time. But even all these years later, the term has to remain the same so we can find what we’re looking for.
The Internet has turned this completely on its head. Now, instead of determining our headings beforehand, we just start gathering data. So one person tags a site as “cooking,” another tags it as “recipes,” a third tags it as “food preparation,” etc. But over time as more and more people tag these sites with more and more terms, certain terms will begin to float to the top. And people tagging will see that others have begun to use one term over another, and that tag will begin to get more and more use until it becomes the accepted term.
A lot of librarians are having trouble giving up the control that LCSH gives them. There’s a concern that if people create their own lists of terms we won’t be able to find anything. What’s missing in this fear is the sheer number of people doing the tagging. Yes, a group of 10, 100, or even 1000 people might not come up with consistent headings. But we’re talking about millions, even tens of millions of people all tagging. Clear winners will emerge and certain terms will become accepted. And the terms will be more intuitive and clearer than the good catalogers at the Library of Congress could guarantee even if they worked on it for centuries more. The system also adapts and changes as culture and language changes.
Probably the largest change we have to accept in this new age is the organic nature of information. Information is no longer static and unchangeable once committed to the page. Information can adapt and evolve as the world changes, and our search tools have to adapt and evolve with it.