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Tagging: ‘Next-Stage Search Phenomenon’

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Though currently only seven percent of Internet users tag content on a daily basis, tagging is expected to grow because of its sheer utility – maybe even at the expense of the now quite old-world categorizing ways of the Dewey Decimal System. Internet search as we currently know it is also expected to change as a result of people-powered indexing.

Because this is the first time they’ve measured it, Pew Internet and American Life Project can’t speak to how fast tagging has grown. What they do know is that 28 percent of online Americans have used tagging at some point, and more are expected to embrace it.

Pew calls tagging “a Web 2.0 hallmark” because of the way it advances and personalizes online searching. The success of sites such as Flickr.com, which is now owned by Yahoo, and Del.icio.us, have sparked the interest in tracking and measuring the various “folksonomies” out there.

As with many things Web 2.0, however, there is still not a clear definition of exactly what tagging is. But it may just be a matter of terminology – what some call “labels,” and others, “bookmarks,” may indeed be included under the tagging umbrella.

The “next-stage search phenomenon” is a far cry from traditional Dewey Decimals because, for one, tagging is more flexible in categorization and therefore more expansive. But it is also far less formal and even farther less objective. Items are labeled by humans with their own language nuances, who ignore traditional organizational methods like alphabetizing my last name, or beginning an entry without articles like “a,” “an,” and “the.”

The result is often, notes David Weinberger, author of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, that there is an inherent confusion in researching.

“Tags work because they’re so simple, but because they’re so simple, they can be ambiguous. The tag ‘roman,’ for example, might refer to an Italian fountain, the director Roman Polanski, or the French word for ‘novel.’

“So, there’s a possibility for misunderstanding. And if you search for photos tagged ‘San Francisco,’ you may not see photos tagged ‘sf’ or ‘Golden Gate.’ So, if you need to find everything about a topic, you often can’t rely on tags.

“More broadly, some worry that folksonomies can be a type of ‘tyranny of the majority,’ in which the prevalent group’s way of thinking about the world overwhelms the local and the quirky. That’s something to watch out for, but by analyzing tag sets we can also build a tag thesaurus that knows that the tag ‘roman’ may be equivalent to the tag “novel” in some circumstances.”

So what tagging lacks in formality, objectivity, and ubiquity, it makes up for in flexibility and intuitiveness. A physical library needs a librarian as a guide for information seekers because numbers and dots are generally confusing to most. Thus, sites like Del.icio.us and Flickr were instantly appealing.

“But the nerve was there,” says Weinberger, “ready to be struck, because of two factors:

First, tagging lets us organize the vastness of the Web — and even our email, as Gmail has shown — using the categories that matter to us as individuals. You may want to tag, say, a Stephen King story as ‘horror,’ but maybe to me it’s ‘ghost story’ and to a literature professor it’s ‘pop culture.’ Tagging lets us organize the Net our way.”

The success of next-stage search, then, will no doubt employ a blend of algorithmic distance and subjective categorizing, a combination that could have breathtaking effects on relevance. “We’re also going to invent new ways to harvest tagging.

“Flickr, for example, is already able to cluster photographs by subject with impressive accuracy just by analyzing their tags, so that photos of Gerald Ford are separated from photos of Ford Motor cars. We’ll also undoubtedly figure out how to intersect tags with social networks, so that the tags created by people we know and respect have more ‘weight’ when we search for tagged items.”

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