Yup – all these tags that seem to be decorating blog post after blog post are useless. In fact, they are worse than useless, they are a pollutant.
In a closed environment such as the WordPress forums, tags are a helpful element but only to a point. The subject matter is fairly narrow (relatively speaking) but even so the current list of the popular tags has ambiguities. Take for instance the tag “edit” – edit what ? A comment ? a post ? a plugin ? core code ? a forum post ? the ‘edit this’ link ? All that can fit under that tag as a minimum and this is WP specific. Now look at these: Theme, themes, design, template, templates, kubrick, layout. All of those will be roughly in the same area of problems but that is 7 tags to investigate if people are looking to try and help themselves on a Theme issue . And this is in an environment where we try to keep tags in line, try and get some consistency, try and promote them as a way to find help, provide help. And of course the assumption there is that all posts are actually tagged. That could be part of the problem – the introduction of tags into an established system where much information will languish in the untagged hinterland. Now I’m not knocking their use in those forums (I like them and use them daily to focus where I can assist. If you have not used them, make that effort to try them – they do work), but I’m trying to illustrate that in a closed system that has a narrow focus the use of tags has problems.
Compare that though to another closed environment – del.icio.us. Primarily tag driven (was it the original source ?) but the audience while wide has certainly been percieved as being of the more geeky persuasion. I forget where I read that, but I remember it because there was a comment on the article bemoaning that fact that as more people used del.icio.us it became harder to use as focus was lost. So a system that was quite tight and self-regulating starts to fray. Tagging there has it’s problems too.
Taken to the web, tags just make things worse. A whole lot worse. Apparently, Technorati will read the categories of this post (currently WordPress and WWW) and use those as the tags to add to this post. It wants to use those tags to help you search. It also seems to count the tags and use them as some sort of “here is what the bloggers are blogging” type measure. Now I am using categories for me. It means I have a better clue where to find something, or in the case of a couple of aggregators that take the WordPress feed they only see what they want to. And categories are self-limiting – I’m not going to create a category just about rabies if I mention it in a post. But tags ?
What are tags for ? In real life they provide very specific information. They are a source. We search them out – we seek the information on them such as price, weight, name, washing temperature. They serve a purpose. And on a blog they do what ? Aren’t they so subjective as to be pointless ? Looking at Technorati just now, it says “Currently tracking 2 million tags” (they show 250 which is 0.0125%). IceRocket is showing a list and a prominent tag is “Default” (what ???).
The blogging cognoscenti would no doubt try to convince us that all these tags are a wonderful way of classifying things, finding common trends, using tags to search and find. I’d say that what they are actually doing is just creating even more noise on the net which makes finding useful and pertinent information even harder. The cognoscenti response would be that others are doing it wrong, doing it too much, not doing it enough. I’m sure the spammers have already hooked into this which makes the game both harder and more pointless. But then.. then we’ll have the ‘tags reinvented’….
This looks like I’m picking on Technorati and I’m not …. from their site:
People can categorize their posts, photos, and links with any tag that makes sense.
I would amend that to this:
People can categorize their posts, photos, and links with any tag that makes sense to them at the time they posted.
It’s perfectly possible that someone could write a blog post while they were drunk, and use ‘drunk’ as a tag for themselves yet that tag finds it’s way through all these bloggregators like IceRocket, PubSub, Feedster, Technorati and what does that tag do ? In the context of it’s creation, nothing at all. So from being some sort of classification it simply becomes a noise, an irrelevance, clutter. And clutter is good so long as we call it just that and don’t pretend it’s some grand plan that will see all the blogging information appropriately labelled and stashed away neatly for archiving. And even if it were that plan, someone would come along and ruin it all by suggesting that what we should really do is stop tagging and instead use categories properly. Have you in just a day not looked at a tag on someone’s post and thought “that is not one I would use”. If you haven’t then you really are one of the elite and you should go hit some generic blogging sites, and if you have then you are seeing the way that information which we want to be more searchable is being polluted by all this unnecessary chaff.
It’s as if the Dewey Decimal Classification System were suddenly applied to everything we wrote anywhere. Compared to what of value can be extracted as a result of this tagging behaviour, the result is a negative. In theory it’s a fine idea, in practice it just does not work.
Tagging on blogs ? Of no practical use.