Just as the internet allows users to create and share their own media, it is also enabling them to organize digital material their own way, rather than relying on pre-existing formats of classifying information. A December 2006 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that 28% of internet users have tagged or categorized content online such as photos, news stories or blog posts. On a typical day online, 7% of internet users say they tag or categorize online content.
These people said “yes” to the following question: “Please tell me if you ever use the internet to categorize or tag online content like a photo, news story, or a blog post.” The wording was designed to capture the growing use of tagging on sites such as http://del.icio.us/ (a site for sharing browser bookmarks), http://www.flickr.com/ (a photo sharing site), http://youtube.com/ (a video sharing site) and http://technorati.com/ (the blog search engine).
Tagging is gaining prominence as an activity some classify as a Web 2.0 hallmark in part because it advances and personalizes online searching. Traditionally, search on the web (or within websites) is done by using keywords. Tagging is a kind of next-stage search phenomenon – a way to mark, store, and then retrieve the web content that users already found valuable and of which they want to keep track. It is, of course, more tailored to individual needs and not designed to be the all-inclusive system that Melvil Dewey tried to create with his decimal-based scheme for cataloguing library materials.
In a book to be released on May 1, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books), David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a prominent blogger, describes how people are putting ideas, information and knowledge together now that the digital age has encouraged alternatives to organizing information from hierarchical systems like the Dewey Decimal method. An online interview with Weinberger is featured at the end of this article.
How tagging works
This is the first time the Project has asked about tagging, so it is not clear exactly how fast the trend is growing. Tagging is one of the emerging Web 2.0 activities around which there is debate about what should be officially counted as tagging. That is, what sets tagging apart as a distinct activity, say, from creating a traditional browser bookmark?
To add to the complexity of the issue, there are probably people who have created a tag who would use a different term for the activity. For example, some sites invite users to apply “labels” to content and don’t use the word “tag.” Google’s tagging feature is actually called “bookmark,” though applies the principles of tagging. Other sites enable tagging so effortlessly that people might not be conscious they are doing it.
Tagging is the process of creating labels for online content. The mechanics are simple on most tag-centered websites and there is an Appendix to this report that links to some sites that cover more fully the mechanics of tagging.
After creating an account on a site like Flickr.com you can upload your photos to the site and then apply labels to the pictures that make sense to you – for instance, labeling a photo of a sunset as “sunset.” Once the labels are applied, anyone using Flickr’s search bar who types in “sunset” can find yours among the other pictures that are similarly named.
You can also search the site using keywords and when you find photos posted by others that you like enough to want to retrieve later, you can apply your own tags to them. That might mean that you call someone else’s picture “sunset” even though he originally labeled it “clouds.”
Then, from any internet-connected computer you go back to the search box on Flickr.com and type in the labels you created and find all the material you have tagged – both yours and the material from others that you have labeled your own way. Thus, typing in “sunset” will yield search results that take you to the pictures you tagged that way.
Not only can tags be personally useful to people who want easier ways to retrieve information that appealed to them, but tags also have a social dimension. Your tags on Flickr are added to the millions of other labels on the site and that allows Flickr to organize information better for other searchers who use those keywords – making this a classic example of bottom-up building of categories instead of top-down imposition of categories.
Your tags also allow Flickr to highlight the most popular listings. These “tag clouds” illustrate the material that was tagged by others and tag sites usually showcase the most popular tags by increasing the font size and boldness of the type as Flickr does here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/ .
Who the taggers are
Taggers look like classic early adopters of technology. They are more likely to be under age 40, and have higher levels of education and income.
Taggers are considerably more likely to have broadband connections at home, rather than dial-up connections. Men and women are equally likely to be taggers, while online minorities are a bit more likely than whites to be taggers.
The act of tagging is likely to be embraced by a more mainstream population in the future because many organizations are making it easier and easier to tag internet content. For instance, Gmail users can label their email content and Amazon users can apply the labels of their choosing to books and other published material.
Yahoo has added web applications that make it easy to tag and store web pages. Some sites have buttons on their web pages that allow their content to be stored on tagging sites with a simple click of a mouse.
There are even reports that some web users now have made tagging sites their home page, making these sites at least nominal competitors to big media companies that hope users will start their online experiences on their main page.
Tagging sites are getting more popular
Data from Hitwise, the web-tracking firm, show that tagging sites like Flickr and del.icio.us have gained in popularity as internet users become aware of them.
The data are presented as a percentage of all web traffic.
Del.icio.us is a site where people can tag their website bookmarks and, again, share their tags with others.