My piece on tagging finally appeared in the Toronto Star today, after a long struggle to make the tagging phenomenon both accessible and meaningful to a general audience. Since the final story had to be edited significantly due to space limitations, I’m posting the full version here.
Del.icio.us spreads tagging fever
Joshua Schachter was working at a trading desk when he decided that he needed a new way of organizing his growing collection of bookmarks – the list of web sites that he kept on his computer, in case he needed to return to a site. His solution was to create a database that stored his bookmarks online, so that he could access them from any computer that was connected to the Internet, anywhere in the world. And to ensure that he could find the bookmarks he stored, he set up the database to accept tags — keywords that described each bookmark. Type in a tag, and up pops Schacter’s personal list of every web site that tag describes.
Schacter opened his database for public use in 2002 at the address http://del.icio.us. Three years later, his database is the darling of the digital elite: Schacter recently quit his day job to focus full-time on del.icio.us, thanks to investment support from such heavy-hitters as Esther Dyson, Amazon.com, and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen. The del.icio.us site itself has more than 80,000 users, and is one of the hottest topics and technologies among influential bloggers.
The del.icio.us tag system is the source of this heat – a heat that is spreading beyond del.icio.us to other corners of the Internet.
At del.icio.us, tags not only help users find their own stored bookmarks, but let them discover other resources they might not find on their own. Search for the tag “marketing” on the del.icio.us site and you find hundreds of marketing-related web pages, ranging from marketing handbooks to blogs to case studies.
Unlike other web page directories, the del.icio.us page for “marketing” doesn’t reflect the opinions of one editor – or worse, no editor at all – about which web pages are worthwhile. Each del.icio.us tag brings up web resources that have been selected by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people. Many del.icio.us users find these resource lists so useful that they set up notification systems that let them know when a new web site has been added to a favourite topic.
Del.icio.us has great sets of web links because it offers users a great amount of additional value in return for only a little bit of extra work. When a del.icio.us user stores a web link to the essay “Hiring is Obsolete,” it only takes a few extra seconds to tag it with a memorable description like “jobsearch,” “employment” or “startups.” But once that tag has been added, the essay can be found anytime — not just by the person who first added it to del.icio.us, but by anyone who looks up jobsearch, employment or startups in the del.icio.us system. Schachter describes this as “enabling groups of people to remember things together.”
Schachter’s vision of tagging as a method for collaboration has quickly spread across the Internet, as both web sites and web users embrace tags as a tool for working better together. Marnie Webb of CompuMentor has convinced more than forty colleagues to use the “nptech” tag as a way of sharing information about the use of technology by non-profits. Patrice Neff is a software developer who uses del.icio.us to share links with a partner on a shared development project. And Cyprien Lomas, an academic technology expert, uses del.icio.us tags to reconnect with colleagues in the instructional technology field.
These early experiments reveal the pent-up demand for simple tools to support online collaboration. But they also reveal how tagging unlocks the gateway between information and community. By allowing people to share information effectively, tags create and support a growing number of online communities. And by bringing communities together around common interests, tags add value to the information those communities gather.
Del.icio.us isn’t the only site to link information and community through tagging. Inspired by del.icio.us, the Canadian photo sharing site Flickr adopted tags as away of organizing user-contributed photos. Every time a Flickr member uploads a photo to the site, she has the option of tagging it with a few words that describe the photo’s subject or image. Visit the “britishcolumbia” tag page for almost 5500 photos of BC. Or flip through almost 7,000 images tagged “office,” or 17,000 tagged “phone.”
Those numbers are directly tied to the way that Flickr’s tag system lets users work together to add value to their photos. “With Flickr, it makes a huge difference if all your family is using the same photo application.” says Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake. “It completely changes the experience of photos because with tags you can gather all your photos together and create a kind of album.” Thanks in large part to its embrace of tagging, Flickr is now home to more than 5 million photos – and was recently acquired by Yahoo! for a rumored $30 to $35 million.
Blogs are getting tag-friendly too, thanks to Technorati, a web site that lets people search blog content. Many bloggers file their stories under category names, so that a story about the Gomery inquiry is stored under the category “Canadian politics” or “Gomery”. Technorati uses those category names as tags, so that every blog post that has been tagged as “Gomery” can be found in one place on the Technorati web site.
That’s good news for the many blog readers who need a better way to find relevant information in the ever-growing world of blogs. And it’s great news for the bloggers themselves, who are embracing tags as a way building online community around shared interests and information.
“We’re still excited by the number of people who are using it to do group-forming,” says Technorati CEO David Sifry. “I know people who were saying let’s do a dynamic travelogue about Ireland. Somebody said if you travel to Ireland, tag your pictures and posts “Ireland” and we’ll all get together.”
And tag-based communities aren’t limited to fun projects like European road trips. Tags are increasingly helping people to solve problems and work smarter.
When 350 bloggers gathered recently for Canada’s first blogging conference, Northern Voice, event organizers wanted to mirror the live meeting with an equally lively online presence. With a limited budget, they couldn’t afford a team of videographers or stenographers.
So they asked participants to use the tag “northernvoice” in all the stories they wrote about or during the conference, and in all the photos they posted online. The Northern Voice web site automatically scoured the web for those tags, and pulled the stories and images onto its own pages. By the end of the one-day conference, participants had collectively created a web site with over 600 stories and an equal number of photos. “The online and post conference made the whole event much more rich than just the 8 hours we spent in the room together,” says Kris Krug, one of the key players in creating the Northern Voice blog.
Tagging worked particulary well for Northern Voice because its participants were already part of the blogging world. But tagging is already spreading beyond the ranks of computer geeks.
Sites like del.icio.us and Flickr are growing rapidly precisely because it takes no special skill to contribute and tag bookmarks, or post or tag photos. And with the universe of blogs growing at an equally rapid clip, more and more people will find that their online comments are being sucked into topical web pages that recognize blog posts by their category or tag.
As tagging grows, web experts are recognizing the challenge that its unique combination of information and community poses to traditional ways of thinking about information management.
“We’ve tried over and over again to have experts build taxonomies to tell us how information should be organized,” says Dave Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society who has been an early tag-vocate. “With tags we have people who use information telling us how it should be organized. And it turns out that there is a lot of wisdom.”
That grassroots spontaneity is also tagging’s greatest liability. Spontaneity is not only a source of creativity, but a source of chaos, with individual users choosing tags they find personally meaningful – but which may not be the tags you’d choose when tagging or searching for the same site.
Savvy users and observers are sanguine about the capacity for beating back the chaos with a combination of technology and human skill – or for transforming the chaos into a positive force. “We may waste a little time but we’ll learn a lot about how we think about information,” says Cyprien Lomas.
Even worse than chaos is the prospect of tag spam, a specter that most taggers see as an inevitable but perhaps surmountable challenge. “Tagging’s just another way to split and divide and find attention and memory,” says Schacter. “These things are all susceptible to people who want to abuse that.”
But don’t write the taggers off just yet. The folks behind del.icio.us, Flickr, Technorati and other tag-friendly sites are confident they can fight off tag spam — though their strategies may have to remain mysterious if the sites are to keep ahead of would-be spammers.
And just as their success attracts spammers, it attracts imitators: new tag-friendly sites and software tools are springing up every day in an effort to build the tagged web. Within the next year or two, tagging may become a standard part of the software and web tools that are used by business people everyday.
In the rush to design those tools, software developers would do well to heed Schachter’s own approach to creating and extending the tagging functionality of del.icio.us itself. “I prefer to do stuff and see how people react and what people use and what they ignore,” Schacter says. “Pay attention to how and what they do and make it so that they can do it.”