How Will Tags Color the Web?

People color the Web with words called tags (define). Give paint and canvas to amateurs, and the result will be unpredictable. Beautiful and original at times, but often splotchy and uneven. That’s exactly what’s happening with user-generated tags. Tags are being associated with text, images, and links with little or no oversight or structure. In true Web form (typos and all), people are describing their photos and links with descriptive tags. The result is, well, interesting.

Are tags a temporary fad or an important addition that will give more structure and value to the Web? The promise of a semantic Web, a Web with associated knowledge or metadata that allow meaningful, context-aware search and navigation, has been around for a while. Yet it remains only a promise.

Could user-tagging deliver on the promise? The challenge with freeform, user-generated tags is the lack of formal structure. There’s little or no semantic association between tags and their related content. My computer doesn’t know whether “zuni” used as a tag is in reference to the San Francisco restaurant or the New Mexico Native American tribe.

It may be misguided to compare user-generated tags with formal taxonomies and the semantic Web. The user tag is a phenomenon onto itself, now with its own name: folksonomies. For more on the subject, check out Adam Mathes’ article, in which he contrasts user-created metadata (tags) with professional- or author-generated descriptions.

Though the jury’s still out on whether and where tags will become useful, a few interesting application categories are emerging. The categories with the most activity are tags used for categorization and organization, and tags used for associative linking.

Wikipedia and Flickr are examples of categorization and organization. The ability to tag personal photos is useful when organizing them. Not that this is a new idea. iPhoto has had tags from the beginning, as did many programs before it. Tagging on Flickr has become a phenomenon in part because of the effect and benefit of allowing anyone to tag public photos, and the emergence of a group of “taggers.” Taggers spend time categorizing photos other than their own.

Wikipedia, likewise, has a core group of about 500 users worldwide who constitute a highly active community. They monitor content changes and submissions for accuracy and adherence to the Wikipedia terms. They edit submissions, categorize content, and generally constitute Wikipedia’s “editorial staff.”

One problem, though, is what’s descriptive to one person may not be helpful to another. You tag a picture of your daughter Emma with “Emma.” This won’t help me find the picture. However, enough people use the words “young girl” so when I type in those words, I quickly get a wide range of pictures and articles related to those words.

Does tagging provide discernable benefits when individuals tag their content for personal use only?

Enter associative linking. Applications such as and Simpy let users create and tag collections of bookmarks. Though tags may help users organize their links, they can do that already with browser folders. These applications’ real value is their ability to share links and cross-reference tags with other peoples’ tagged links. The moment you add a new tagged link in, a list of associated links and tags appears. That’s quite powerful.

Yet it’s only useful so long as there’s shared context. I tag a link to a new Bluetooth peripheral for computers with the word “mouse.” That might make sense to you if you’re looking for my link in the context of seeking a new pointing device. It would make no sense if you were looking for a link about rodents.

“Mob indexing” has been used to describe the user-tagging phenomenon. It brings to mind an angry mob tagging products and sites. Tags might even become a customer satisfaction index. Customers who are unhappy with a company’s product could submit links to a site and product pages with tags such as “poor service,” “bad attitude,” and so on. Unstructured user feedback would become easier. Links would show up in interesting, and perhaps unwanted, contexts.

Will people take the time to tag links and content? Some will. But most? Tags’ success will depend on whether and how people apply them, and whether enough context can be provided to make them generally useful. Applications that use tags are still on the fringes of the Web. Yet, tagging is gaining some acceptance and momentum. If it reaches critical mass, a whole new application ecosystem could evolve, giving people more “crayons” with which to color the Web and providing new ways to find, associate, and organize an increasingly cluttered information space.

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