What we can learn from delicious and the tagging revolution

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Yesterday, the social bookmarking service delicious was retrieved from the Yahoo! remainder bin by none other than YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. When delicious launched eight years ago, it rapidly became one of the favored web services of the emergent “web 2.0”, but over the years its star has been eclipsed by other shinier, newer services. Twitter, in particular, has disrupted much of the link-sharing that used to happen via social bookmarks.

But the significance of delicious can’t be reduced to its share price or even the size of its user base. The significance of delicious lies in its earliest contributions to the social media ecosystem, and in particular, in the lessons those contributions offer for the battles still ahead.

Among its many contributions, one in particular stands out: the popularization of tagging. Tags are simply keywords that social media users employ to label and organize online content. Tagging took off in 2004 as one of the most intriguing aspects of newly-emergent “web 2.0” sites (the term “social media” had yet to be coined). As user-generated content exploded, tags helped organize the bookmarks, photos and blog posts that users contributed to services like delicious, flickr and 43things.

Thomas Vander Wal coined the term folksonomy in 2004 to describe the new form of user-driven knowledge organization created through the process of tagging. Unlike a taxonomy of keywords that might be created by librarians or other information professionals as a way of organizing content,

The value in this external tagging is derived from people using their own vocabulary and adding explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding of the information/object. People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding. (Vander Wal)

These days, we scarcely stop to think about the use of user-selected tags to describe a photo, video or blog post that somebody has created or stored on a social website. But it’s the very invisibility of tagging — the speed with which it’s become unremarkable — that makes it so useful to reflect upon.

In 2004, tagging was remarkable and remarked upon because it represented a significant power shift, one of the first major social shifts to be catalyzed by social media. You may not think of your local library as something akin to a Star Chamber, but nonetheless the existence of a professional class of knowledge organizers says a lot about how a society produces and consumes knowledge. These traditional knowledge organizers included not only librarians and archivists but also journal and book publishers, book retailers, professional organizations, and academic researchers: in other words, anyone with a credential or position that gave them the power to say this idea belongs in that field, or this topic is related to that topic.

In the pre-folksonomy world, the taxonomies created by these information and research professionals did a great deal to structure our relationship to available knowledge and available publications. Which magazines you find clumped together on a magazine rack; who you identify as a colleague or potential collaborator; which “related” books are identified as potentially of interest to you based on your past reading: all these forms of streaming were heavily influenced by formal and informal taxonomies that were created or patrolled by professionals.

With tagging, new kinds of knowledge organization arose, not on the basis of some kind of professional expertise, but on the basis of usage patterns and descriptions applied by the people who are themselves creating or consuming content. My picture of the Capitoline Wolf in Cluj, Romania  is files not under /Art/Classical/Roman/Reproductions/Romania/Cluj, but under the tags that make it meaningful to me: woolf (a family name) • statue • family • Rome. This lays the basis for an entirely different way of understanding this piece of content, and for establishing a different set of conversations and relationships.

If the professional class of knowledge organizers was either unable, or more accurately, uninterested in launching a counterattack on folksonomy, other established power bases have not been so sanguine about the assaults launched by social media. Hell no, you don’t get to call it journalism. Hell no, you can’t talk about this. Hell no, you can’t cite that.

Too often it seems like established sites of power have the deck stacked in their favour. Certainly, many different entities and associations have proven themselves more than willing to invoke the law in defending their hegemony over a particular field of endeavour, a particular technology, a particular brand, a particular expertise.

But these are early days. 2004 is not very long ago at all. If you were one of the first people to post and tag photos of your newborn baby on Flickr, that baby would just now be finishing up her last months of grade 1. In the time it’s taken her to develop basic reading ability, tagging has gone from emergent phenomenon to complete invisibility. When that 1st grader stores her first bookmark or writes her first blog post, tagging will seem like the normal, everyday way you label that content.

The babies born today are likely to transcend today’s battles over journalism, disclosure and research in just the same way. We endure what feels like an eternity while the old guard digs in and battles it out, but to the next generation it seems that it took just a few days to plough under the trenches and grow flowers in the battlefield.

Our job is to remember that change is possible, even in the face of powerful resistance. What feels revolutionary and impossible today will be, tomorrow, as unremarkable as tagging.

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