After Dave Winer cited my Friday post about tagging, I’ve been remonstrating with myself for saying only part of what I wanted to say. Yes, there’s a problem with the present state of tags (and the fact that Roland and Dan chimed in tends to reassure me that I wasn’t just being cranky). Yes, the overhead of effort presently imposes a high tariff on early adopters (Dan appositely cites the contrasting example of entering music information in an online database). Still, as I said before, I love the idea of tags, and I see plenty of reason to care about them.
Here’s a Shirky-an reason for my remaining hopeful about tags. In my biblical-interpretive line of work, and especially given my idiosyncratic interests, I spend a lot of time wrestling with the ways that the Library of Congress classification system parcels out the books I care about. Since I specialize in theological hermeneutics, I have to look for books (all intimately connected with one another in my imagination) shelved under specific New Testament books or authors, particular theological themes, philosophical hermeneutics, and comparative literature (to take only four disparate examples). These books reside in different parts of at least three different libraries at Northwestern. Top-down classification systems impede my work, and tend to reinforce a view of knowledge current at the moment the system was devised; if the organic semantic Web were a few degrees easier, more rewarding, to implement, with the prospect of durable return-on-time-invested, I’d be all over it.
And for ad hoc purposes, tags already have shown their usefulness. A week ago Saturday, I wrote on a chalkboard at Seabury, “flickr tag blogwalkchicago.” within minutes, flickr and Technorati showed a satisfying array of posts and photos. It also points to a weakness in the concept: if you look simply for “blogwalk,” you’ll find a fuller array of references, many of which don’t show up on the more specific search even though the more specific search term applies equally to them (and I’m not sure I tagged everything I posted with the simpler “blogwalk”).
So yes, if (as Dan points out) the rewards were not so thin relative to the effort, if (as Roland points out) software support more frictionlessly relieved tagging of its nuisance factor, if (as Shelley points out) we didn’t confront a multidimensional spam/bother/imprecision/then (as David points out) a ground-up, user-oriented tagsonomy would rock. Something like that still seems like the likeliest alternative to an metascheme for organizing all online knowledge (in which this blog would be destined to be relegated to the BS section, as are my books (BS 476.A32, BS 476 .H24, BS 2397 .A32, to pick three). But we haven’t turned up the device that’ll kick that engine into gear, not yet.