Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

What’s in a tag?


That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet … maybe not, but it would probably be easier to find
Hence my argument for definition by function, and the need to avoid obscure language in favour of simply highlighting the user benefits.
Although many people reading this are likely to have been engrossed in social software concepts for some time, it is important to remember that the world is bigger than our little community, and many people still have a very different concept of what a tag is
This was recently highlighted to me during some focus group sessions conducted on one of our projects; it emerged that many of the users where unfamiliar with ‘tags’ in the context of a website.
While the act of tagging content is simple, the conveyance of its meaning is not so easy to achieve. I think we are guilty of assuming that because we know, everyone else does. This is plainly not the case, as I have experienced many times when trying to explain to people what I do for a living.
Tagging is not a complicated action to perform, but the reason tagging works is also the reason it is hard to define in a single word. What is rarely taken into account in social software implementations is that terms such as tagging – in the social software sense – do not form part of common language
A simple google define or casual glance at wikitionary highlights this:

tag 1. A small label. 2. A game played by two or more children in which one child (known as “it”) attempts to catch one of the others, who then becomes “it”. 3. (also skin tag) An excrescence of skin. 4. A type of cardboard. 5. Graffiti in the form of a stylised signature peculiar to the person who makes the graffiti. 6. (baseball) An instance of touching the runner with the ball or the ball in a gloved hand.

The traditional definition of label correlates much more closely to my understanding of social tagging

1. A small ticket or sign giving information about something to which it is attached or to intended to be attached. 2. A name given to something or someone to categorise them as part of a particular social group.

I use tags in all the time; I use them on Flickr occasionally; and, in Gmail, I very rarely use ‘labels’ and actually resent the fact that I can’t maintain my traditional range of email folders
It seems that implementation is key to the success of tagging, and although not applicable to all situations, where it does offer benefits, tailoring the language used to the audience in question will (I believe) improve adoption.
There is no need to inherit the de facto terminology in every implementation; in fact, it would seem that for a less technical audience the use of the term ‘label’ may sometimes be preferable based on its real world usage
Whatever word or phrase we choose, it’s not necessary for users to fully understand all the concepts surrounding tagging to successfully ‘tag’ – all there needs to be is enough of a perceived benefit to encourage the user to try it in the first place. In fact, I would argue that initial ignorance can help: think of all the other things we do daily where we still truly don’t understand the mechanics (driving a car, using the radio, getting cash from the ATM) yet will still gain benefit from it
Tagging: a folksonomy for the people by the people … whether they are aware of it or not 😉

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