The Glory of the Garden


The effect of lots of tags

What happens when a whole lot of stuff gets tagged? Especially when you consider not only your own tags but other people’s tags applied to the same objects.

First of all, consider photographs on a site like Flickr. There are literally gazillions of photographs on this site now. There are photographs of almost anything you can think of. If you want a photograph of an apple then all you have to do is type in http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/apple and you will find 54,964 photographs of apples (today). But wait, what’s this? I wanted a photograph of a nice shiny green apple and I’m getting lots of photographs of nice shiny white computers.

How can I distinguish between photographs tagged with “apple” for fruit and “apple” for a particular brand of computer? Well it turns out this is no problem at all: just click on apple clusters and you will see these photographs broken down into tag clusters. What this does is look at the tags that people have applied to their apple photographs and divide them into groups based on what additional tags they used. People photographing fruit will tend to use additional tags like “orchard”, “fruit”, “green” and people photographing computers will tend to use additional tags like “Powerbook”, “Mac”, “iPod”. This make it easy for Flickr to automatically separate the fruit photographs from the computer ones. This is an amazing result! I can’t over-emphasize how important this is: it is easy and successful to use tags to distinguish between similarly-named things based on context without enforcing any kind of formal taxonomy. Phenomenal! Who knew?

What else can we do with large numbers of tags?

There is a crucial, fundamental difference between the tagging strategies of Flickr on the one hand and del.icio.us on the other. In Flickr the photographs are tagged only by the person who uploaded them. In del.icio.us the same link can be tagged by many people. I personally believe this is a significant design flaw in Flickr and instead of an Add to faves (i.e. a single user tag) button they should have implemented a way of tagging other people’s photographs with your own arbitrary tags.

The fact that del.icio.us has the same link tagged by different people gives you a wonderful opportunity to track down other internet resources that are relevant to you. You tagged a link with “recipe” but somebody else may have tagged the same link with “cookbook”, it doesn’t matter. The point is, you can see what other links they have tagged with “cookbook” and let them do the legwork for your own research. Why search Google for the perfect recipe site when you can see which sites have been tagged most often on del.icio.us? Let other people lead you to the perfect seafood recipe. This is where the del.icio.us philosophy is superior to Flickr’s, but there is one area where Flickr is well ahead of del.icio.us: it’s a lot harder to distinguish between fruit and computers when you look for apples on del.icio.us, but you can learn from the Flickr clusters and try http://del.icio.us/tag/apple+fruit for instance.

So we can see that very useful results come from allowing people to tag things easily and without attempting to control what tags they use. People often ask why sites don’t adopt a more formal approach and encourage or force users to use a restricted set of tags. This, they say, would lead to a more reliable way of finding what you want – if some people say autumn and some say fall then how can you find all pictures of leaves turning brown? Well that would be to misunderstand what tags are for – this isn’t a deterministic taxonomy like the Dewey Decimal system or the way we name plants and animals. The barrier has to be as low as possible or people just won’t bother. The value is immediately apparent to the tagger because they know their own tags. The macro effects, which are of value to everybody, arise from the sheer volume of the tags. Clustering and other heuristic techniques mean that you will find what you are looking for. Somebody tell Bono.

Next: Tagging in the corporate environment

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