Tagging – the latest way to search the web
Monday January 2, 2006
The latest trend sweeping the web – as trends are wont to do – is tagging. Last month, Yahoo! bought the leading tag service, Del.icio.us, which enables you to save a web link and associate it with labels so you can find it later. That sounds simple, like file folders, or categorised bookmarks, or the labelled, rubberised containers in which my wife organises our lives in spite of me.
But tags are proving to be more powerful than that. Tags are a means not only to remember links, but also to discover content tagged by others, to target searches and advertising, to connect people of common interests, and even to collect the wisdom of the crowds.
David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto and author of an upcoming book about tagging called Everything is Miscellaneous, explains that when knowledge was imprisoned on paper, it had to be stored in one place, under one address, usually with the one-dimensional Dewey decimal system. But thanks to the internet and tags, knowledge is now freed from the bonds of paper and can be found from many directions: you could discover this page online via any number of Google searches, or through bloggers’ links, or because somebody tagged it under “tagging” or “blather” or both. Then you could use services like Del.icio.us or Technorati.com to find more, now related content filed under those same tags. And so the chaotic internet suddenly begins to align into constellations of context.
The internet is turning tagging into both a social trend and an industry. At internet conferences, delegates now agree to use common tags so they can find the blog posts and photos that follow (see, for example, multilingual conversation about a Paris blog confab at www.technorati.com/tags/lesblogs). I can also subscribe to feeds of the content people file under certain tags, allowing me to rely on them to find the latest news in topics that interest me (see del.icio.us/tag/journalism).
Flickr.com, a photo storage and sharing service also bought recently by Yahoo!, allows users to save and tag images. Fascinating social phenomena ensue: people swarm around tags so their photos can be found with others (search Flickr’s tags for “funny”). This also has become a means of introducing people to more people with similar interests – thus, for example, New York photobloggers converge via their content tags. As soon as a public transport strike began in New York, photos began accumulating under the tag “transitstrike”. Flickr, in turn, notes what other tags are associated with those photos so that it immediately becomes clear that “strike” and “nyc” are related. Thus, the people organise content context without even trying.
You may sort photos on Flickr two ways: most recent or most interesting. But how does Flickr know what’s interesting? Like most internet wizardry, that springs from an algorithm. Flickr’s “interestingness” formula notes not only the most popular photos and those most frequently saved as favourites but it also takes into account social relations: if strangers comment on your photo, says Fickr cofounder Stuart Butterfield, that shows that they found your photo interesting. The result: when you browse Flickr’s “interestingness” gallery (at Flickr.com/explore), you will see an amazing set of images that are, indeed, interesting. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the taste of the crowd.
There’s money in this trend. Internet entrepreneur Mark Pincus said his Tagsense project found that users’ tags on content can increase the performance of targeted advertising there. And new inventions and companies are constantly springing up around the tagging craze. Consumating.com, a dating service that lets users tag themselves (popular one-word autobiographies include “wine”, “redhead”, and “pierced”), was just acquired by tech site CNET.
At the Web 2.1 conference in San Francisco – a discount, populist version of the high-priced Web 2.0 conference held nearby – I saw a tag company created in less than a week by technologist Adam Kalsey, who analysed content and tags so that his program, Tagyu, could assign tags to similar content. Thus, the audience tells you what your content is really about.
Well, I’ve had a geeky good time with the subject of tags. But this isn’t just another valentine to just another cool online trend; we’re so over that. No, tags have a larger lesson to teach to media. They present a clear demonstration that the web is not about flat content. The web is about connections and the value that arises from them if you enable people to collect and communicate. In the old, big, centralised, controlled world of media, a few people with a few tools – pencils, presses and Dewey decimals – thought they could organise the world and its content. But as it turns out, left to its own devices, the world is often better at organising itself.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com