By Daniel Terdiman
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 16, 2005 4:00 AM PT
If you've been to a technology event recently, especially one with a high concentration of digerati, you may have seen someone stand up and tell everyone what the event's Flickr tag is.
It may sound like another language, and in a way it is: Flickr is a popular photo-sharing service that allows anyone to view most of the more than 50 million member-submitted images it hosts. Tags, meanwhile, are the searchable keywords the individuals can assign to either their own images or to those of nearly anyone else that say something about the information--the defining characteristic of Flickr and a growing number of other online services.
"In Flickr, tags worked because they were fundamentally social," said Stewart Butterfield, Flickr's co-founder. "By agreeing on a tag in advance, users could collectively curate collections of photos in a dead simple way. Now we see people announcing at events, 'The tag for this is baychi05' and stuff like that."
The idea behind tagging may be irresistibly simple, but its ramifications are enormous and complex. For more than a decade, the primary way to categorize and find information on the Internet was through the automated algorithms of search engines, a process at once laborious and highly imprecise. Tagging has quickly gained popularity because it allows human beings to bring intuitive organization to what otherwise would be largely anonymous entries in an endless sea of data.
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Moreover, beyond its practicality, others find a philosophical significance in tagging because it is consistent with the social thinking often associated with the beginnings of the Internet. What many fans of tagging like best is that it is a system that empowers individuals. And after years of users trying to find their way around Web sites using categories defined by a small number of people running those sites, tagging is a huge relief.
"We've had this decades-long program of top-down metadata. People (were asked) to go out and become familiar with one ontology and to make sure data is categorized like this. But people are not very good at this," said Cory Doctorow, an editor of the technology culture blog BoingBoing and the European outreach coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "I think what's completely right about folksonomies is asking people to do something for their own benefit, to have them organize their own information and then find the accidental or fortuitous positive externalities."
Because tagging is used as an indexing tool and as a way to search for information, both in discrete databases or across the Internet, some say it is conceivable that the technology could one day give search engines like Google a run for their money.
Brad Hill, an author who has written about search engines, sees tagging at this stage as a tool for collaborative social use, not for universal searching. But he added that tagging could become so deeply embedded in the social fabric that "tag clouds"--large groupings that collectively cover many areas of information--could one day become the first search choice for many people.