In the days before the internet, most people in our generation associated the word “tag” with graffiti: signatures spray-painted on buildings, trains, and bridges by street artists and young people in general. Tags first appeared in the US in the late sixties and early seventies along with the birth of hip-hop culture.
At the symbolic level, tags served as a way for an individual to mark their place in the public space, a way to leave a personal signature in a hitherto impersonal place. Tag-covered walls staked out gang turf, warning those who would “trespass” on their territory.
Thus tags were also a way to control space while circumventing a city’s official government and regulations.
Tags now work in a similar way online, where they are private marks left in digital space. A tag is simply a label, but in the context of new digital culture, the word is used in reference to metadata, or information that describes other information. Tags are like the labels that list a product’s features, the difference being that online, the product is usually information itself.
As opposed to the tags left by graffiti artists, digital tags are not signatures, but descriptions. Similarly to analog tags, however, they are sometimes used in a bottom-up and non-hierarchical fashion. The are used to categorize, and sometimes annotate, content available online, and not just for one’s own content, but also for data posted by others. They are another manifestation of the belief, characteristic of new culture, that a knowledge base can be built not just by “experts”, but by all users working together.
The fundamental problem faced by internet users is no longer the production of information or obtaining access to it, but the filtering of content. Methods of selecting content became an indispensable part of the web within a few years of its inception. The first solution resembled a catalog of content, a type of online phone book compiled by a narrow cabal of “experts”. When that proved insufficient, the era of the search engine began, replacing human editors with an algorithm that selected the content that best matched a given query.
The trouble was filtration was a difficult thing to implement with the use of algorithms, as computers were unable to tell the difference between good and bad, and useful and useless content. It is no coincidence that the search mechanism behind Google uses data gleaned from choices made by its users. Google itself doesn’t “know” how to filter content, but it does know how to make effective use of the information it gathers about how the search engine is used by its users. The filter is thus the collective wisdom of the internet, a wisdom that is learned by Google. The tools needed to generalize the information revealed by our behavior are enormous. Yet every search engine relies on the collective — and largely unintentional — work of internet users.
Who else would annotate all content posted en masse by internet users, if not the internet users themselves? Our columns are tagged by the editors of Biweekly, but there aren’t many articles to go through, their subject matter is limited, and there’s someone whose job it is to do it. But as our readers know perfectly well, what interests us the most about digital culture is how it incessantly reaches beyond the professional realm. A small group of experts can reliably catalog small amounts of content, such as that published by Biweekly, but it would be impossible to scale that up to the entire internet. For this reason, folksonomies are one of the key elements of Web 2.0.
Folksonomy is simply another word for social tagging. It’s a taxonomy created by groups, in grassroots fashion, without hierarchy or imposed “professional” standards. The most popular form of folksonomy are the tags used on microblogging sites: just put a hash mark (#) in front of a word, and it becomes a piece of metadata. There is no official hierarchy or list of acceptable tags.
If you use a resource that you’re familiar with, help other users out by tagging it with the proper keywords. You’ll make it easier for the next person who goes searching for content on the same subject. Practical, isn’t it? But usefulness isn’t the only advantage of folksonomies. Aside from offering an effective solution to the problem of cataloging data, folksonomies are, in a sense, an exercise that helps us consider information and cultural content as a common good. When we use the work of others, we pay them back by doing the same, and together our tiny efforts build a common filter.
Cataloging is the traditional occupation of a narrow group of specialists: archivists and librarians, or scientists categorizing animal species, stars, or types of rock. All of these occupations are arduous and boring. Folksonomies, on the other hand, are created by “everyday” internet users, proving once again that any one of us can be an archivist, to the obvious chagrin of professionals, who spare no opportunity to point out the numerous formal errors present in grassroots taxonomies.
Metatags will soon become a fully-accepted element of culture. Folksonomies, until recently the domain of internet nerds, are growing in popularity thanks to the use of microblogging platforms. Steven Berlin Johnson, in his 1997 book Interface Culture, went as far as to state that the filtering of information will itself become a creative form. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Ben Sisario confirmed Johnson’s thesis, pointing out how music bloggers revel in inventing names for ever more obscure musical subgenres. And what are musical genres if not folksonomies that describe musical culture?
Going back to the subject of graffiti: a growing function of the symbols posted on walls nowadays is to strengthen the ever-growing bond between the physical world and the world of information. Yellow Arrow, a project started in 2004, invites artists to post arrows in public places, pointing out interesting places and landmarks, with an attached several-digit code. Send the “tag” to a special number by text message, and you’ll be given information about the labeled location. In Japan, where the future is now, two-dimensional QR codes have already become ubiquitous. Just snap a picture of a QR code found on a poster, flier, or business card, and you’ll be linked to the URL contained inside.
And finally, there’s the growingly-popular phenomenon of geotagging: linking online content to places on the map. One example is the Flickr photo sharing platform, which enables users to mark the locations in which photos (including those taken by others) were taken.
Thus the “tag” returns to its “street” roots. And if the street is no longer just a physical space, perhaps we should reconsider whether it ever was.
translated by Arthur Barys