On the Need for a Tagging Standard

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"We got heads on sticks. You got ventriloquists."
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Posted on January 17, 2007 1:32 AM in Computers
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

On Sunday, I posted Why Some Tagging Goes Too Far, and tonight I noticed that there was a post on Slashdot Monday morning titled The Need For A Tagging Standard. That post and the post it links to are interesting, but even more interesting is the confusion such an idea seems to have sparked among those site's presumably technically-savvy readers. I was amazed at how many people seemed to equate "tagging" with markup (e.g. HTML) instead of taxonomy (e.g. Technorati Tags).

That being said, there were some insightful aspects to the discussion. For instance, one comment on Slashdot points to the rel-tag microformat, a microformat I wasn't aware of that allows for applying a tag to a web page (or a portion thereof). However, even that particular microformat is very Technorati-based in that the actual URI defines the tag. Nevertheless, this is interesting given the fact that I suggested a standard tagging microformat in my post on Sunday.

In the article Slashdot links to, an interesting problem is presented in that the actual structure of tags differs from one service (e.g. del.icio.us) to another (e.g. Technorati). In my opinion, this isn't of great concern when formulating a tagging standard, though, because it isn't the tags themselves that need to be standardized, it's the method by which they are made accessible to services of all shapes and forms. The beauty of tagging is that I can tag something "windowsxp" and you can tag it "Windows XP." It's flexible in such a way that you don't have to stress about whether you're doing it the right way. Granted, this presents problems from a social perspective in that it becomes harder to equate the tag "windowsxp" with "Windows XP," but this is not a difficult problem. If you don't believe me, search Google for 'brittanny speeeers' and look at what Google suggests you're looking for.

The bigger problem lies in the fact that when I'm over at del.icio.us browsing all things tagged with lightning, there is no microformat telling my browser (or extension) that I'm showing interest in a particular tag in general. Therefore, I'm not presented with the option of viewing photos tagged with 'lightning' over on Flickr, even though that might be more interesting to me than what del.icio.us has to offer.

Before I digress too far, though, I should point out that this strays from my previous post's main point that, in at least some cases, tagging goes too far. I'd guess that in most cases a Google search for 'lightning' will present users with several options relevant to what they're after. In fact, I could very easily see a Yahoo search for 'lightning' returning relevant content from both del.icio.us and Flickr, given that those are both Yahoo properties.

Because tagging can apply to so many applications in so many different niches, I think it is fair to say that semantic standards could still prove very fruitful, even if the bigger beasts are slurping up all our content just fine without them.

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