Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Post-Exam Encompassment

By: Michael Akerman

UPDATE (5-11-05, 11:30 PM EDT): I know the next installment of "The Bear of Wolf Creek" has been a long time coming. And it's still coming. But currently, it's been sitting at 2 paragraphs for a couple of weeks. I should have some time to pick up the writing again soon.

Once again, the IVIC crew has suffered through the insanity, inanity, tomfoolery, and ridiculousity of final exams. I've pontificated on this before, but, to review, I think finals are deeply flawed.

This semester, I again did well. Doesn't change my opinion of them.

Since the blog needs some fresh content, and IVIC doesn't have any specific focus, allow me to introduce you to:

Tagging: The Way of the Future

As Steve Rubel wisely deduced earlier this year, 2005 will most likely go down, in the history of the internet, as the year of the tag. Tagging (or folksonomies), an idea largely pioneered by the social bookmarking service, allows the organization, distribution, and maintenance of information based on a user's own classifications. The gist of tagging: upon submitting information, the user attaches keywords that describe the content, their opinions about the content, how they found the content, who should use the content, or anything else they wish to classify the information with. The result is a comprehensive set of logically filed data that allows the user and other users to find the things they want.

This is especially useful when one is searching for either very specific things or an uncommon thing in a common category. With tagging, one doesn't just see the most popular blog, but the blogs that can fall by the wayside.

There's historically been a problem with schemes such as this: the user has no incentive to maintain his classifications if he gains nothing from it, and most user-organized systems have not had a hook. Tagging, however, has succeeded in this arena. Tagging, you see, is built foremost on letting the user help himself. Clay Shirky said that tags keep things found, and he couldn't be more correct. The user saves his information, categorizes it, and makes it self-searchable. It is an autonomous and microcosmic search engine: rather than having a full field of possible websites for Google to hope to find the single obscure page the user wants, the user has narrowed the field to only the pages he has previously found interesting, and can find it using the keywords that seem most logical to him for the page: the very keywords he assigned it.

Users are eating it up. Beside delicious, other services have found tagging a powerful and expedient method of information management. Flickr, the photo storage, management, sharing, and blogging site (social photographs, essentially), uses tags very effectively, and achieves something entirely new. Rather than searching the image title, or the words near the image, as Google Image Search is forced to do, Flickr can find photos based on actual content. Want to see photos from New Zealand? Simply search for the tag. Technorati recently added tagging support for their blog search engine, as well.

Users are even inventing new and interesting uses for tagging. Steve Rubel requests that users pitch links for him to peruse by submitting the site to and tagging it "micropersuasion" (this apparently started with Nick Denton, but don't quote me on that)

An interesting side effect of tagging has been the ability to see new trends as they form. Delicious shows the most popular websites of "recent" times (I'm not entirely sure how long "recently" spans, but I think it's about a day). Flickr shows popular tags by making the tag's font larger on the popular tags page. More specifically, one can see what their friends are interested in, how they are thinking, and what interests are developing for them. For instance, my delicious page reveals that I have 11 sites tagged for "blog," and 5 for games. It also reveals that I was interested in reading about UFOs on 5-5-05, and that I have one linked tagged as "boobies" (that's though, so it doesn't really count).

As a user-driven organizer, storage system, and sharing system, tagging promises to revolutionize how people interact with computers. Rather than the computer dictating how the user must arrange his data, the user controls the computer! Expect programs that use tagging as a major way of arranging data (Picasa 2 and GMail do this to a degree) to sprout up all over the place.

Oh, and if you want to jump on the bandwagon before everyone else gets here, feel free to start a account, and post it in the comments. Let the folksonomic sharing begin!

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman