January 17, 2009
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In TEKKA: Tags

Not to be missed in TEKKA is Cathy Marshall’s brilliant study, Do Tags Work? Tagging has been widely hailed as they key to folksonomy, a possible route to the semantic Web; see, for example, David Weinberger’s best-selling Everything Is Miscellaneous.

Bottom line: Marshall takes a painstaking look at all the tags applied to all the images of one particular sort of flickr image. One might expect to find an informal, emergent taxonomy; what we actually find is, pretty much, nothing we can use. The words people put in picture titles and comments are actually better tags than the words they use as tags.

The study could be repeated on more images, and in additional contexts. It might be bad luck. But if it’s a repeatable result — and I think we all know it is — then we’re going to have to rethink a lot of our Web 2.0 rhetoric. Folksonomy is an illusion.

Commentary: Sven Portst thinks it’s pseudo-scientific, but also correct. Mark Stoneman finds it “amusing and informative”. Paul Mison hopes that tags can be salvaged for personal use. Several good and thoughtful delicious bookmark notes, including Leslie Orchard (thinks Marshall wrong, but having trouble saying why); in fact, one of the better delicious collections I've seen.

Leslie Orchard then follows up, arguing that tags work for him in delicious, though he doesn't find them very useful on flickr or elsewhere. Repeating the study for delicious seems to be a natural direction, and that would be useful. He also suggests that delicious tags are more useful than flickr's because they're the only user-supplied metadata, where flickr also has title and description.