Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Tags: Just an Interface Innovation?

I meant to write up this great entry on tagging when I read it last week. Unfortunately I didn’t have time, but now I do and better late than never, right? The entry is a bunch of points about tagging (hence the “bottom up”), some are very interesting, some are less. The one that jumped out at me most was actually the very first one:

Tags are not organizational innovation they are an interface innovation. The difference between a tag and a category is non existent except that the interface threshold to create a tag is so low that people actually do it regularly.

This is a very interesting argument and one I agree with in many ways. For me, tags on del.icio.us act as a categories. I organize my links into all these various buckets. The big difference between this scheme and the folder scheme you encounter in normal file structures is the ability to cross-post something. Again, though, I could cross-file anything, even in a real file cabinet, if I felt like making multiple copies and keeping them all updated across multiple folders. With that said, I think it’s true that it’s just an interface innovation: tagging makes it easy to categorize and cross categorize. There’s no clicking, dragging or anything else, you just type in a bunch of words and viola, you’re done.

That, however, is not the only use of tags, and I think this is where it becomes an organizational innovation. Once you remove tags from your own personal area and extend them across an entire system you’ve got a whole new way of organizing. Because one most systems tags can be viewed across multiple users, they become a way to easily organize without any interaction. They become the ultimate bottom-up organization tool. As I’ve written in the past, “Tagging is a great way to create a community without having to develop any additional backend.” There’s no need to start a new email list or a new forum topic, you can begin to organize, or join others simply by tagging something with the same term or terms. In that way it’s more than just an interface innovation.

I also believe that the possibilities of tagging as an organization innovation will become more and more apparent as we use tags for more. Tags are a form of metadata and their biggest impact may come down the line, as people become more comfortable with tagging and thus metadata. With a population used to attaching this additional information, we can begin to analyze and even ask them to attach additional levels. The deeper we go, the more context we add. The more context we add, the more value. The more value . . . I’m just not sure.

September 16, 2005