Tagging: The Happy Guy in the Hawaiian Shirt

Posted on July 21, 2005

I was reading an article by Jon Udell about the legacy the tagging craze is going to leave behind. He says

When the novelty wears off [...] I think that tagging will have altered the information landscape in a fundamental way.

[...] it’s the social dimension of tagging that really kicks things into overdrive. At InfoWorld, for example, we’ve been tagging the stories we publish. In a progress report on the experiment, I showed how it’s not only helping InfoWorld editors to work collaboratively toward a common vocabulary, but it’s also enlisting readers to enrich and refine that vocabulary.

This is an important thing, to be sure. But I disagree: the most important legacy I think the tagging craze will leave behind is that it got us all to relax a bit.

Categorization and metadata have traditionally been such uptight affairs: make sure you have a category first, and make sure it fits into the taxonomy somewhere, and then write your article and select the categories it fits into from a list of checkboxes, etc. Tagging has foregone all that: it’s the happy guy in the Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts compared to the uptight Type A in the double-breasted suit.

Consider the Movable Type Tags plugin which I wrote about yesterday. This thing creates Movable Type categories like crazy. Categories used be a sacrosanct, well-planned thing – we add one here only once or twice a year, and when we do, it rates an announcement, if not an actual parade.

But with the Tags plugin, new categories pop to life as fast as you can type keywords. In a way, this plugin is telling you, “Relax, man – categorization is a good and easy thing. An extra category here and there isn’t going to kill anyone, and someone might need it to find something someday.”

Whereas categorization used to be tedious, now it’s almost fun. Can’t think of where to put something? Just start banging away on the keywords field – it’s all good.

This is even more true when you consider that the Tags plugin did nothing new. Nothing. All it did was present a simple way to (1) create new categories, and (2) assign entries to categories. In the end, it was an interface widget, and nothing more.

And isn’t this what all tagging systems are: just ways to make categorization easier? When I discussed keywords and categories in the framework of this site last year (I was way ahead of my time, it turns out – that post is a road map for the tagging craze of the last six months), Joe commented:

I see no functional difference between keywords and categories.

He’s right. Tags are categories, categories are tags. One is just more...laid back than the other.

It’s all in the perception of tedium. People hate to “categorize,” but they’ll “tag” all day long. Hallelujah.

(Note: I stole the picture of the Hawaiian shirt from this page, so go buy a shirt from them so they don’t sue me. And how can you not like a place called “Discount Preppy.” Tag that one.)

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