Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Tagging: Individual or Social?

Are tags an individual or a social thing?

This is the question that Arienna of Blogaholics and I have been going back and forth on in the comments of my “Annotating Flickr with a Side of Social Networking” post. For me, tagging is an individual activity. When I tag something in del.icio.us, most of the time it’s with little or no thought to who else is going to see that tag. I tag things so that when I go back and want to find them I can as easily as possible. Arienna, on the other hand, sees things a little differently. In the comments she explains:

I think that tagging is social, not individualistic.

Although you can tag for your own personal reference – like having a well organized database of stuff you are interested in, be it yours or others. However, I think that we tag because we want to share. The more tags we associate with a post, a picture, or a bookmark in del.icio.us, the more people are likely to find and benefit from our effort. The same is said when others tag a photo on Flickr – they are talking to you about what they think of your picture and are expressing their opinion to others who may search that term.

Her comment got me thinking about the evolution of tagging online. While I’m not sure just what that evolution is like, I do think looking at the way my tagging practices have evolved probably sheds some light.

With del.icio.us, I started with a very limited number of tags because I was worried things would get too confusing. I didn’t want to muddle up my system (or the system), so I tried to pack lots of things into little containers. Slowly, though, as I realized that this was all about me finding information I’m interested in faster and more easily, I began to expand my tags. At this point I have a whole lot of tags (I don’t feel like counting, but I would guess it’s in the hundreds). Then from tagging things openly, I started doing more social things, like the “needsafeed”
tag, which allows people across the internet to contribute to a list of websites that need an RSS feed. It’s kind of interesting to see how my use evolved, because I started with the group in mind when I kept my tags as clean and simple as possible and then moved to tagging things differently when they were for me individually and socially. But the best thing about tagging is that it’s easy to do both.

I think this is what makes it so powerful. To me it has the ability to be both an individual and a social activity. I can’t imagine ever going back to worrying about the group when I’m tagging things personally, but on the other hand, I also love using tags as a way to connect with other people (check out my WhatsInYourFirefox post).

Also, it’s important to remember that the more individually you use tags the more effective they are for the group. If I use five very specific tags to describe something then someone who may have subscribed to that intersection of five tags is sure to find it interesting.

Essentially, the big point is that the power of tags lies in their flexibility. To quote an old favorite, “the medium is the message” (that’s McLuhan by the way). Tags can do or be anything a user wants them to. It’s the ultimate innovation tool because it’s infinitely expandable.

I read a great article in the Times yesterday titled “Innovation Moves From the Laboratory to the Bike Trail and the Kitchen”. It was all about how the most innovation comes from “lead users” (aka early adopters). The gist of it is that when you give someone a product, they will find their ways to use it. Often, they’ll come up with entirely new products that you may not have imagine, but that other users will desire. It even includes some numbers from 3M:

In a study at 3M, he and several colleagues found that product ideas from lead users generated eight times the sales of ideas generated internally – $146 million versus $18 million a year – in part because lead users were more likely to come up with ideas for entire new product lines rather than minor improvements.

This is an incredible idea. Thanks to technology, the definition of R&D is changing. Joe Schmo in his basement has so much reach that he can come up with ideas today that he never would have imagined 15 years ago. He can also connect with other users in entirely new ways.

It just goes to show you that the more access to customize you give a user, the more it can benefit your company. Tagging is infinitely customizable (literally), so imagine what people can come up with. The sky’s the limit.

April 22, 2005