Sep. 29, 2006

What's In A Name?

Flickr, del.icio.us, and Technorati are three examples of websites that allow “tagging” – the practice of user-defined subject classification. What words come to mind when you look at the picture of a baby? Cute, baby, eyes, youth, diapers, responsibility, hope? All of those would be suitable tags that a Flickr user could assign to the picture.

Tags not only allow a creator to assign his or her own subject headings to Internet content but also connect this content to other text, music, and pictures that have similar tags. A search on Flickr for pictures with the tag “relief” brings up albums related to Hurricane Katrina, to art from across the globe, to relief services in Lebanon and Pakistan, to baseball pitchers, and even to men relieving themselves on the side of the road. The way in which such different ideas, subjects, and contexts are tied together is one of the fascinating qualities of tagging.

As a research tool however, tagging’s usefulness diminishes. While using tags works well for finding general and popular information, there is a noticeable scarcity when specific information is sought out. Furthermore, resources that are tagged are not necessarily the most reliable. Searches performed using del.icio.us (where websites are tagged) for “American Indian,” “polymers,” and “John A. Macdonald” almost never showed authoritative websites in the search results, which might indicate that the people who are tagging the most popular sites are not necessarily being as discriminating a researcher as a student or scholar might be.

Does tagging have a utility for historians if, in its current manifestations, it is more of a hindrance than a help in researching? Certainly there are proponents of tagging. The creators of Steve.museum hope to build a larger community of individuals attending art museums by allowing patrons to tag pieces of art that are posted in Steve.museum’s online gallery. By allowing patrons to tag museum holdings, curators are hoping to make art more accessible to a greater number of people.

Such a tactic seems like more of a gimmick to get individuals onto a website or into a gallery, but his does not mean that tagging is entirely bereft of benefits. Patron-tagging is another way that museum-goers and scholars can have a dialogue. Curators might use popular tags as keywords when describing a new exhibit in advertising. Tagging is also useful in identifying what is popular among patrons or what patrons find controversial. Educators might also make use of student tagging. If students, whether at the secondary or post-secondary level, were able to tag research resources and course readings, instructors might gain a better sense of how students are conducting research and where students’ interests lie. Instructors might tag resources themselves as a different way to give students a start on where to look for research or supplementary material.

On the other hand, when considering the usefulness of tags for researching, it seems best to leave classification up to experts. While it is important to ensure that jargon is minimized to make information accessible to the public, systematic naming facilitates more efficient searching and should ideally lead to answers faster.