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Tags Are A Pain In The Ass

A royal one.

I don’t mean implementing a tagging system, and I don’t mean tagging things for your own consumption later on, but using other people’s tags to find information they have posted is and even when you find something you are rearely left with any confidence that you’re seeing all that you should.

The problem is that everyone has their own notion and conventions of what tags to label things with or how detailed or broad you should be with the categorization and there has been little work done (that I have seen) to deal with the issue

Take two prominent examples of this from the past few weeks—Newsvine and the SXSW Interactive Festival.


There are a thousand great sites for tech news, but with Newsvine I have gravitated more towards using it to find hockey, political, and science stories that might get buried on more conventional news venues by tracking a long list of tags. This only works if the stories that I think are out there are tagged with the specific tags I think they should be. Lets use stories covering the New York Rangers as an example. Does one watch the tag “Rangers”, “New York Rangers” or “NYR”? The initial reaction might be to watch them all, but in this case that is a bad solution. beyond the need to watch 3 or 4 terms for every singular entity you’re looking for a term like “Rangers” is a very bad one in a global tag space picking up stories not only on the New York Rangers hockey team, but also the baseball team from Texas, the soccer team from Europe, the US Army organization and whatever other noise it brings in.

So in an effort to cut down on noise you drop a bad tag here or there—the result being that inevitably you miss some breaking stories about trades or other news because they were tagged only with the tag you stopped watching and you only find out were actually in the system when you’re doing text searches a few days later. If you ever find them.

The solution given to me in the specific case of Newsvine was to track the tag “Rangers” inside of the “New York, NY” locale. Sure it might catch a few more stories then ignoring the tag but what if the game was played in another location and it was designated there, or not designated for any location?

Another solution in this particular scenario is to have the facility to track tag pairs or sets, but how much more work does this make for the user, and does it really alleviate the feeling that you might be missing something? Do you track “NHL+Rangers”, “Hockey+Rangers”, “Ice Hockey+Rangers”, “Rangers but not Texas”, and on and on and on.

SXSW & Web Standards Project Panels

Being in the middle of WaSP discussions about SXSW this and SXSW that for the past few months but not going myself I spent some time over the last week looking on from afar. Sites like Flickr and Technorati or bookmark sites Ma.gnolia and all had a pile of coverage of the event. But how do you find it all? Well, here’s a “short” list of tags I ran across in the last week used to designate the event:

  • sxsw
  • sxswi
  • sxsw06
  • sxswi06
  • sxsw 2006
  • sxsw2006
  • sxswi2006
  • sxswi 2006
  • SXSW Interactive
  • South by Southwest
For the Web Standards Project:
  • wasp
  • web standards project
  • webstandardsproject

On top of that you add any stalking you do based on individuals names or names of specific panels or topics. With all those synonymous tags across half a dozen sites it takes a huge amount of effort on the part of a consumer of tagged things.

Of course, I don’t have the foggiest idea of what can be done to solve these usability issues. I’m just here to complain.

Alternative titles for this post include, but are not limited to:

  • Tags Are A Pain In The Butt
  • Tags Are A Pain In The Rear
  • Tags Suck
  • Tag Clouds Are A Pain In The Ass
  • Tagging Is A Pain In The Ass
  • Folksonomies Are A Pain In The Ass
  • Well, you get the idea

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  1. I had this exact conversation with someone yesterday. There is some museum that is doing this for their collection, and letting people tag objects in it, similar to news items from Newsvine. It’s being trumped as this massive break through in interacting with museum collections but I couldn’t help but wonder how they expect people to have any consistancy with tagging.

    Sure it’s “interactive” and lets people feel like they have some control over content on a site (and ownership) but after a while it just becomes tag soup.

    I’ve really only ever felt tagging was useful for myself and my own way of organizing content, since most other people’s methods of tagging usually make no sense to me.

    Comment by: vitaflo @ Mar 16, 11:58 AM #
  2. I understand your pain, as I found myself in a similar situation as I was trying to come up with ways people might tag these topics or items I was looking for.

    At flicker, we can also include Clusters :

    NEW Explore and refine photos with our brand new clustery goodness!

    An attempt to cluster or group similar items, or solve a challenge of tags with similarity?

    * SxSW clusters

    * Webstandards clusters

    Comment by: holly @ Mar 16, 02:31 PM #
  3. Prentiss Riddle has coined a name for the solution to the problems you mention: tagginess

    Comment by: xian @ Mar 17, 12:59 AM #
  4. Aside from the fact that developers need to do a better job of implementing tagging (for instance: offering a list of tags others have used), clustering is a nice afterthought. I even like the sound of the word “clustery”. Sounds like “strategery”.

    Of course those of us who were there knew the secret agreed-upon codeward was “sxsw2006”. Anybody who wasn’t using that tag was saying “I am noise, filter me out.” :)

    Comment by: chat @ Mar 20, 04:36 PM #

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