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Tagging – For Organizing Information

December 27, 2007

One of the most important aspects of the web today is a way of organizing information called tagging (or, on Blogger, labelling). You could say that tagging is the child of alphabetical indexing – a post-Gutenberg information management invention – and hyperlinking – a web networking development. You can see what this looks like in the tag cloud pictured below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tag_%28metadata%29 (If you want to learn about Web 2.0, you can click on the link to Wikipedia and then click on the various hyperlinked terms in the image to read the Wikipedia definitions. The size indicates how often each is used.)

A Very Small History Lesson
Humans spoke before we wrote and for centuries we dealt with information by remembering, sometimes using memory aids like rhyme, rhythm, and formulaic storytelling. Then writing developed, and people could note down information, and compose stories. Sacred writings passed wisdom along the generational chain, with “books” being tied together into one unit, no matter what their subject matter. A small elite of those who could read and write formed, and were usually part of a priesthood devoted to preserving, accumulating, and passing along the wisdom. All the “books” were hand-copied and some priests had books virtually memorized, but that didn’t create the absolute uniformity that came with the printed word.

from – http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/4200/4255/printing-press_1.htm

When the printing press was invented, exact copies could be made, and human interventions, mistakes and alterations didn’t cause variations among copies. Reading, in the European world was still associated with the sacred, although universal literacy was seen as a way to allow everyone to have immediate connection with the Holy Scriptures rather than having to go through a hierarchy of priests. With the growth of universal literacy, many other developments followed, including the ability to “read” (and interpret) the same texts differently, which created dissent. People began to reproduce books other than scriptures, and thus to share and spread philosophical and scientific thought, which sped up “progress” and led to even more differing opinions.

For scholars and readers, other developments were built on the uniformity of the books being published using a printing press. In order to avoid reading a whole book while looking for one piece of information, the organizational development that most links (pun intended) to tagging was developed.

While information and ideas were being discovered, collected, and published, readers began to want to read just parts of (non-narrative) books. Now that many people could read books where the pages always stayed the same, it became easier to manage information. Scholars started creating categories, or taxonomies, so they could find specific information quickly and completely. They began using indexes at the ends of books, and alphabetizing these indexes; it was worth the time it took for someone to index the information in a book to make it more accessible to the many readers of the book.

It quickly became essential for any learner to learn how to use indexes in books and in libraries, and systems of organizing information developed as rigid categories were set up, and people learned how to use them.

With the arrival of the World Wide Web came the possibilities of hyperlinking. Taxonomies & alphabetical indexing (top down hierarchically controlled) plus hyperlinking (giving choice in reading/viewing paths)combined and in Web 2.0 tagging was born.

I use tagging for my blog posts, to make it easier for readers to search for the topics that interest them. However, the real power of tagging, for me, comes with my online bookmarks. I use del.icio.us – to collect website addresses, URLs, for future reference. I use words or phrases that have meaning for me as keywords. Sometimes when I’m adding a site to my del.icio.us account, a tag may be a general topic, like, say, “social_bookmarking” or it might be highly idiosyncratic, like the course code of a course I teach, or I might add both plus the name of a friend whom I’ll send the link to next week, or all of them. For example,

While I check through the blogs I follow, using my feed reader, I don’t read them in full, but I do add the relevant ones to my del.icio.us account, and now have an extensive collection of tags –

far more than I can show you in a screen shot. They are an invaluable resource, and they are named for my interests and needs, not according to a rigid and prescribed set of terms.

Tagging is a new and highly useful way to organize information, a method that didn’t exist, before the web.

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