On tagging, the grey side

My last two posts have been about tagging based on my presentation last week at the conference in Sydney, “Enhancing search and retrieval capabilities and performance”.

I want to look at some of the perceived disadvantages of tagging that I briefly mentioned in my presentation:

  1. Lack of specificity – refers to the fact that an item can have innumerable headings (tags) and there is no fixed agreement as to the most suitable term. A formal taxonomy and classification system have been the traditional ways of asserting specific terms to items.
  2. Ambiguity and inconsistency – because anyone can apply a tag to an item, there will be a multitude of tags that do not clearly and consistently apply to a specific item. Some people may tag something as “locomotive” and another “train”. The same person may use “locomotive” now but three weeks previously used the term “train”. And train may in fact not refer to a locomotive at all (with or without carriages or wagons) but to a wedding dress, a series of thoughts, or to an adult education class.
  3. Lack of structure – The traditional relationship between broad and specific terms (the parent-child tree structure that historically organised information into “like things”) is not there in a tagging system. Weinberger refers to a tagging system as one that looks at the leaves on a tree rather than just the branches.
  4. Problems with stemming or truncation – words like plurals, or words with a s or z in them.
  5. Ceding control of search terminology to the “inexperienced” – using the correct terms is an important exercise not to be trifled with by amateurs and the inexperienced professional.

It is true that there will be imprecision in tag terms and inconsistency in the application of tags to items that look to be the same things. It is also true that the same individual may use different tags over time to describe essentially the same thing. And tagging might thus be perceived as a mess, needing an experienced taxonomist and library professional to make sense for us. People in the information business who like order and structure have a long historical paradigm to work from.

Yet all is not lost. Tagging will become self-refining, gradually highlighting preferred terms (perhaps through a tag cloud) or via suggested or similar headings. Collaborative tagging and folksonomies will help shape a form of group consensus leading to a meaningful sense of order. And technologies will improve to cater for some of the weaknesses of current tagging systems. One example is Raw Sugar.

Overall, tagging will continue to grow simply because digital information will grow at time-warp-like speed. The sheer scale of the digital world, and the cost of ordering that digital information, will not easily permit formal and timely classification. Just imagine trying to keep up with all the blogs in the world, let alone the individual blog posts from each of them. 

Tagging will become more important and self-fulfilling due to both the technology and the demographic changes in society, responsive to the digital world and the need to make sense in it for individuals and their peers. The changing nature of information, and the new consumers and producers of that information, means that change is inevitable.

Interestingly, a recent article highlighted the changing nature of reading – the development of an information browsing culture among the digital natives. The impact of the digital world should not be underestimated.

In looking at tagging so far, perhaps one could say we are in a period of transition from the structure and hierarchy of giving order to physical information (like books, journal articles and celluloid film) to one where digital information allows for innumerable access points, innumerable tags and descriptors, and seemingly available from anywhere.

[Of interest, check out this podcast from Beth Jefferson on transforming public libraries’ online catalogues into environments for social discovery of resources that are catalogued not only by librarians, but also by patrons. A salient quote on social cataloguing – collaborative tagging if you like: “the metadata people create by cataloguing content is what enables social search and discovery”. Beth Jefferson wants to enhance social search and discovery across North American public libraries through collaborative cataloguing, whether by evaluative comment or by description. Tagging and thesauri may indeed coexist.]

So the question remains – is the traditional way of ordering information and establishing a single authority for fixed terms appropriate in the modern digital world? And practically speaking, what is the right balance between order and miscellany in any given context?

I will feature one more blog post on the tagging issue looking at how the enterprise (the firm, not the fictional space ship), might take to the tagging phenomenon. Stay tuned…

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2 responses to “On tagging, the grey side

  1. Reinaldo de Oliveira Castro

    Thank you. Very interesting article. I’m a newbie in tagging area and this helped me a lot.

  2. Pingback: Being good with Tagging | www.mindfuldigitalcitizen.com

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