I’m having a spirited debate about tagging with Matthias Müller-Prove (@mprove) on OraTweet, and I thought it would be interesting to open it up to long format and other viewpoints.
Plus, we’re flooding OraTweet, which I’m not sure people appreciate.
Setting the Stage
I like tags. They’re quite valuable and provide an easy way to group information for quick retrieval, and if you have a large community using them thoughtfully, you can reap huge benefits.
Too bad that’s rarely the case.
Tags are a Utopian concept, like electric cars or universal health care, good ideas that create a better overall experience for everyone. Too bad not everyone wants to play along and contribute value to the community.
When we introduced the IdeaFactory in 2007, we included tags. At the time, tags were a necessary bullet point on all Web 2.0 pitch decks, after all Tim O’Reilly included tagging as an evolutionary pointer in his What is Web 2.0 primer. So, duh.
Tagging proponents even coined a new word “folksonomy” to contrast the new hotness of a social classification system with the old and busted rigors of a centralized, machine-managed taxonomy.
Web apps like Flickr and Delicious were shining beacons of tagging’s success, demonstrating how an informed and thoughtful community could use tags to create faster and better information retrieval.
These were the salad days of tagging.
Over the years managing IdeaFactory, which eventually became Connect, I’ve dealt with many tag-related user queries, and the sad fact is that tags are too much work for the average user.
Maybe it’s conditioning by dropdown-list or list-of-values, but when presented with a text input field labeled Tags, most people just skipped it. Many who tried to use tags were confused. What are they? Are they public? Are they case sensitive? Can anyone use them? How do I know what tags to use? What if I mistag something? How can I delete a tag? Can you combined these tags for me? How do I create a new tag? Can I make my tags private?
Basically, tags weren’t intuitive enough.
We tried to alleviate confusion by throwing technology at the problem, e.g. type-ahead to suggest tags, but it became clear that tags weren’t getting used very much.
Beyond the confusion factor, Connect has fast and good search. Search is a known behavior for every user, and there’s no educational learning curve. Thanks to internet search engines, people have become adept at searching and manipulating their keywords to get the best results.
Search might not be better than tags, but it’s a known quantity and good enough.
So, why should users invest effort in a new feature when good old faithful search does the job well enough?
Maybe it’s Connect’s users. After all, we’ve always fought an uphill battle to get people to use Connect; Enterprise 2.0 and its sibling the social enterprise are only now finding widespread adoption. So, being ahead of the Bell Curve could have hurt.
But guess what reference points people have for social today?
Facebook and Twitter, neither of which include classic tagging.
Fast Forward to Today
You used to see a tag cloud on nearly every blog and web app, not so much anymore. Paul (@ppedrazzi) and I always shared the same skeptical view of tag clouds, i.e. they only make sense if you understand and use tags, thereby limiting their value and taking up valuable space. I suspect many large properties agreed and have removed their tag clouds, even if they continue to tag their artifacts. See TechCrunch, GigaOm, Mashable, and most other big traffic spots.
Chris Messina‘s (@chrismessina) hashtags have become the new folksonomy, easier to use from a UI perspective, but equally difficult to explain. So much so, that there are actually primers on how to use hashtags properly.
I kid you not, search for them.
The point is tagging is hard, and search is easy.
That’s not to say that search is perfect, or that tagging is a failure. Neither is true.
Through Matthias and Peter Reiser (@peterreiser), I know that Sun had a vibrant internal community, Sunspace, where tags were used with much success. It seems that people had no other choice, but to use tags, which forced them to understand the concept and get the maximum value from tags, a great way to educate people.
Flickr and Delicious are models of the same, i.e. a dedicated community that collectively agrees to get value from tags.
Too bad all communities aren’t like this, and if you want to build a community at all, I’d avoid tags altogether because they’ll only cause you headaches.
So, until all communities are Utopian, I’ll stick with the reality of search.
Find the comments.