TECH TALK: The Future of Search: Tags
When I first came across del.icio.us and its use of tags, I found it quite flimsy. But as time has elapsed, I have come to believe that tags have the potential to dramatically change the way we look at information and in the process, lay the foundation for the Memex. David Weinberger puts in nicely:
Del.icio.us kicked “tagging” into gear by giving us a reason to tag stuff. It’s a bookmarking site: If you come across a page on the Web that you want to remember, you post the URL to your personal page at del.icio.us. On the way, you tag it with a word or two that will help you find it among the mass of bookmarks you accumulate on your del.icio.us page. The kicker is that everyone else can see not only what you’ve bookmarked but all the bookmarks that share a particular tag. You can even subscribe to a tag as an RSS feed. For example, I subscribe to the tag “taxonomy,” so every time I go into my blog aggregator, I see a list of new pages to which people have applied that tag. You can also see tagging at work at Flickr, a photo post-and-share site that lets you tag your photos or (with their permission) your friends’ photos.
Folksonomies are different in important ways from top-down, hierarchical taxonomies the shape we’ve assumed knowledge itself takes.
The old way gets some experts together who create a nested tree of concepts into which everything in a particular domain can be slotted. Think of the Dewey Decimal System. Think of the Tree of Life. The new way invites users of information to add a word or three to the objects they want to find again.
The old way provides the vocabulary we are to use. The new way lets us use our own words.
The old way puts the control of the classification system in that hands of the owners of information classifying it. The new way gives control to the users of information.
The old way creates a tree. The new rakes leaves together.
This is not an either-or. The old way trees make sense in controlled environments where ambiguity is dangerous and where thoroughness counts. Trees make less sense in the uncontrolled, connected world that cherishes ambiguity.
In our world of events, we can publish tags for things we see and want to keep for future reference. We are doing it for our own good, but if we share it with others, a sort-of emergence effect builds structures that no single individual can. We can also subscribe to tags think of this as a sort-of search across our subscriptions or the wider world outside. RSS ensures that we are alerted any time something new comes across and is appropriately tagged.
Tags are the wisdom of crowds. There is every reason for them not to work. And yet, they do. Along with subscriptions, tags are the other fundamental building block of the event-driven interface of tomorrow.