From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 28, 2007*: But you can, you can!

I suppose that it's only natural that so many of us make the often heard claim that our desks may look messy, but we actually know exactly where everything we need is located. There's really nothing wrong with this self-delusion, and when it's allied with the pretension that a disorganized desk is really the sign of a creative mind, it offers the added advantage of our being able to take pride in being slobs. There can be little doubt that our hard drives are as organized (or as disorganized) as our desks - but we're lucky that there's much less of a chance that anyone is actually going to get much of a glimpse into them, or far enough inside them so that they might realize the extent of our digital clutter.

Personally, though I don't mind being considered creative, both my desk and my hard drives are well beyond the point at which I might be able to assert that my clutter actually "represents" any particular quality I might possess. And even a cursory glance at my desk readily verifies that any claim that I know where everything is located is an obvious lie. Sure, when I first place something on my desk, or in my bag, or on a shelf, I've got a general idea of why I think it should go where I've placed it. But that vague sense of having an organizing principle soon recedes into the distance. All I'm really left with is a mess. Still, I've got an excuse. I may be drowning in clutter, but it's because I'm waiting for a new organizing principle, one that fits my associative way of thinking, to present itself. And of course all this is a roundabout and overly drawn-out way of explaining why, when I first encountered tagging, it made perfect sense to me. It was clear to me that this was what I wanted to use to categorize my documents. On the spot, I was ready to abandon folders.

I adjusted to folders more or less by default. That's what there was, so that's what I used. But they didn't exactly fit my style. Though I might logically create a few folders for a few different projects or topics that I was involved in, sooner rather than later I'd find myself in rather murky territory. Too many subjects that interested me were situated at the intersection of other subjects, and fitting them clearly into one particular folder rather than into another ultimately became a rather arbitrary decision. And of course that meant that if I'd saved and filed a particular document, finding it later became less a question of where I thought it should logically be kept, but where, on the spur of a particular moment, I'd decided to leave it. And of course once again this suggests that rather than a filing system, what I needed was a highly developed and refined method of search. I'd yearned for this for years. I'd even written about it as well.

But perhaps as important as, if not more important than, helping us find what we're looking for later, filing fulfills an important function in the all-too-immediate here and now. With the vast amount of files that we create, filing them offers us the opportunity to stop for a moment and ask ourselves about the relationship of a particular file to others we've saved. Does it belong here ... or there? Is it a continuation of something, or a new thought? And of course this moment of stopping, of reflection, is needed most when we're in the non-stop world of surfing the web. More than any other situation I can think of, web-surfing is the one in which we're most in need of slowing down in order to get some perspective. As we jump from page to page, from site to site, we have to decide whether what we've encountered will perhaps merit a return visit, whether it contains information that we'll want to access again (even if we don't know when), and if so, under what circumstances. Ostensibly, this is what bookmarks are for. But bookmarks serve an even more basic function than making it easier for us to get back to a particular page sometime in the future. They force us to stop and reflect on the relationship of the particular page we've visited to others from the past, or perhaps the future. As I've noted numerous times in the past, sometimes I'll find myself using a particular tool to bookmark a page not necessarily because it's the best tool for what I want to do, but because, having used one particular tool for a number of pages, I'm now dealing with a page that's in some significant way different than those others, and I therefore want to distinguish between it and those others by using a different tool to mark it.

Is tagging any better at categorizing a file or a bookmark than "simply" placing it in a folder? Tags offer a solution to one particular problem - that the particular page that we want to bookmark can logically be placed into a number of different categories. In the physical world, an item can be placed in only one container, a photocopied article can reside in only one folder. If we want it to be filed in two different folders, we'll have to make an additional copy of it. When folders were adopted as a metaphor for storing or filing on a computer, the assumed quality of physical presence seemingly came along for the ride. It wasn't really necessary, but it stuck. We might say that tags behave differently from folders in that they define various qualities of a file (can I at least still use that word?). While a file can be placed in only one folder, it can be exemplified by various, and numerous, qualities. Maybe we can adopt the nomenclature associated with quarks and say that when we tag we give a file flavors.

Tagging, of course, isn't only, or perhaps even primarily, something done privately. In today's interactive web, tagging has become perhaps one of the central social activities. We tag so that others might know, and we tag so that others will recognize us as contributors to the hive mind, will identify us as members of the Web 2.0 clan. As an individual activity tagging may or may not be a useful way of categorizing our files, but as a collective activity it's part of an anti-elitist movement. The idea of the folksonomy, that through tagging we create worthwhile categories from the bottom up definitely makes at least a bit of sense. But it's perhaps less an idea to be put to use, than an ideology to be adhered to. Tagging and folksonomies are in style. They fit a prevailing set of opinions about expertise and the wisdom of crowds, and when someone tags a bookmark, he or she seems also to be tagging him or herself - "see, I'm part of this too!".

As much as I like tagging, perhaps I shouldn't gush too enthusiastic about it. There may well be a substantial chasm between the promise and its realization. As much as I find it logical and even obvious, I don't tag as often as I might, nor do I always find something worthwhile by following other peoples' tags. In a similar vein, though I'm attracted to the social aspects of tagging, it's the introspection and reflection that they permit me on the personal level that I find most useful. That may explain why I don't actually tag as much as I might like on, and as for not tagging for my own purposes on my own computer, well, I've always got the excuse that I'm still waiting for a tool that will allow me to do that.

Researchers seem to be attracted to tagging. Questions of how particular tags become widespread while others remain personal are, apparently, the sort of thing that dissertations are made of. A very recent Scientific American article: Tag, You're It: Scientists Describe Collaborative Tagging Sites like (it seems that they didn't care whether there was anything original about the title) reports on an Italian team of researchers who examined tagging. Among their earth-shattering findings was that people used already popular tags because it made them more visible to others that might be conducting similar searches. If that's the best they can do, I guess I won't bookmark that article in my account. I happened to stumble upon it, and if minimal effort brought very limited returns, it's no big loss. But even if tagging the article demands limited effort on my part, I doubt I'd be contributing to much by helping others to find it. There really seems to be something fascinating about tagging, and after devoting quite a bit of thought to why it's fascinating I still find it hard to understand why many people encounter so much difficulty understanding it. But though effective tagging certainly demands stopping and thinking, and making connections, I've at least convinced myself that whatever effort we devote to it should be concentrated on the tagging itself, rather than on trying to understand its essence.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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