The past, present and future of tags.

To illustrate how badly I digress while writing… this entry started off with the title “I hate social networks”. Go figure.

In some ways I am mildly obsessive-compulsive about organizing stuff. Which means that I’ve sorted things in boxes, categories, hierarchies, systems. It always breaks.

I buy paperback books because then I know they all fit in the same shelves (maybe also because they are cheaper), and I try to get all books in a series from the same printing (or at least the same publisher) so the cover art/bookends fit nicely. I can sort and pack stuff effectively – until I end up with all the small, irregular stuff that can’t be stacked, doesn’t have enough similar items to be packed together.

When moving I spend 90% of the time on the last 10% of stuff. Excluding cleaning… that too takes 90% of the time… procrastinating away from. Perhaps I spend so much time sorting and packing the last 10% of stuff so I can avoid the cleaning for a bit more?

Back to digital sorting and stacking.

I’ve tried partitioning hard disks, building hierarchies of folders, naming systems on documents, lists and whatnot. For blogs I’ve tried hierarchical categorizing (until multiple root folders contains like named leaves), no categorizing (teh horror) and lots of categories (tags without the actual usability).

Anyway, with the advancement of tags I feel I am getting closer to something usable. Broad categories where each item is part of one, and lots of tags attached to each item. Only three problems remain.

  1. The categories are always wrong
  2. There are always tags missing on the items
  3. Tags ends up nearly duplicated, so that they doesn’t tie together like items

Now, the last gripe might be fixed by regularly maintaining the tags, and having a system for defining synonyms. (a bit of work, easier with the right “tool”).

Missing tags are fixed by regularly maintaining tags and items, and can easily evolve into a monster. It can be handled if older items grow towards a suitable set of tags over (a not too long) time. One action that have started to be included in solutions for the Internet, is the ability for the community to help you tag your items. This lets items (images, blog entries, links) mature in their descriptions faster if your community is involved. If you let them. I.e.Google lets you play a game and help them tag images.

The first problem listed above is fixed by the impossibly hard problem: Few and general (broad) categories. Yes, that easy – and still hard to do.

I really want to look into Topic Maps. But that seems like too much work to maintain. Although the possibilities are alluring.


Author: Tormod Haugen

Thinker of thought, drinker of coffee.

2 thoughts on “The past, present and future of tags.”

  1. Topic Maps sound like a perfect way to organize your tags. Although I would probably use a tree method instead with a “Master List” of tags used. Have the tags you have used listed somewhere, starting with the least specific and moving to more specific, so that in the end it looks like a branching tree. Use this list to choose tags for any new post. If you later decide to add a new tag and want to work retroactively, you just look at the posts that nearby branches applied to to find ones that the new tag should likely be added to. The only problem is deciding what defines a “category” of tags and what should be an actual tag.

  2. Topic Maps ought to be a perfect fit for organizing your information and move away from the limitations of tags. After all, that’s what the technology is all about.

    Hierarchies can only take you so far, but TM allows you to express relationships outside of the limited “is-a” (super-/subclass) relationship … and make the information networked.

    You can also easily describe synonyms, etc. — whatever you might want to (built-in support for multiple names). It’s a perfect way to describe data about subjects — and connections between subjects (for example tags) … from the user’s perspective.

    I’d encourage you to read “Metadata? Thesauri? Taxonomies? Topic Maps!” [1] and “The TAO of Topic Maps”, as well as to experiment building your own topic maps using TM software such as the OKS Samplers [3].


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