David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Tags vs. Categories

If you’ve looked at the meta line underneath the headlines on this blog recently, you might have noticed that I’ve started tagging on this blog.

I’m using a WordPress plug-in called Jerome’s Keywords, which puts a convenient text box for entering tags on your Compose page and then gives you lots of convenient functions to call them up on your blog. In addition to displaying the tags on the meta line, these tags also appear in the page’s meta keywords (which, contrary to what some people think, isn’t totally useless).

Why tagging? I’ve thought long and hard about the rationale for emphasizing tags over categories. Obviously tags allow more specificity than plain old categories do. Categorization is a vestige from the days when knowledge was limited by resources like everything else in the world. If you’ve only got one hard copy of your biography of President Kennedy to put on the shelves, you’re probably not going to create a whole section for Kennedy family history. You’ll probably stick it on a shelf labeled “U.S. Presidents” or “U.S. History.”

But on the World Wide Web, the shelves and the books are all virtual. Nobody has to print up a thousand copies of your screed on President Kennedy and physically file it on a thousand different shelves. We can create new shelves on the fly as soon as we think of them, and we can instantly file things on a thousand shelves simultaneously. (Or, more accurately, keep one copy of the book and create a thousand different pointers to it.)

Marshall McLuhan once said that “the medium is the message.” The exciting thing about this whole cheesily named Web 2.0 thing is that we’re just now starting to discover what kind of medium the Internet is. Just as early television shows were little more than theater productions captured on film, so the early web was little more than magazine columns and marketing brochures distributed through digital pipes. That’s changing now, just give it time.

(A sideline: I find it quite irritating that Senator Ted Stevens got so much heat and ridicule heaped upon him for calling the Internet “a series of tubes.” Not that I mind Ted Stevens getting spanked so much, because I think he’s a reactionary blowhard. But his analysis of the Internet as a series of tubes was basically sound, albeit lamely phrased.)

(Another sideline: As I’ve written before on my DeepGenre post The Mutation of Genre, I believe that genre is another vestige of limited resources that will eventually disappear. Meaning in fifty years, a massive catch-all term like “science fiction” won’t make much sense to anyone anymore. Instead you’ll be browsing exclusively through finer gradations like steampunk, alternate history, and medieval thriller.)

What this all means for the blog is: whereas before, only the pages sharing a broad subject matter like book promotion were tied together, now you can find all the articles in my blog related to pattern recognition, for instance, or the KGB Bar. You could have just typed “pattern recognition” into the Search box, of course… but chances are you wouldn’t have thought of it, and having a handy-dandy link makes you that more likely to pursue it.

So why didn’t I just expand the list of categories? Why not add just add categories for pattern recognition and Krokus and The Empire Strikes Back and all the other little things I talk about here? Because I’ve hedged my bets by keeping the categories system too. So you’ll still be able to peruse broad categories of my blog posts (e.g. film, technology, science fiction) as well as granular tag terms.

How long this arrangement is going to last I don’t know. Keep in mind that I’m still going back through the archives to tag old articles, so the process isn’t complete. Once I’m done, I’ll probably find someplace to stick a tag cloud too.

Let me know what you think of the tags so far.

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jeremy James on April 3, 2007 at 10:39 am  Chain link

    Way to embrace tags. They matter.

    One suggestion for the use of categories (because they matter too): Category = “type” of content / medium (audio, video, blog, essay, interview, news, etcetera).

    Tag = “topic” that the particular type of content is about, which could be anything.

    In other words, categories are about the format, and tags are about the meaning conveyed in whatever format.

    This is a very useful thing to provide your audience, since you can search for topic / tag first, and then tailor the results based on the type of media you want to consume.

    Anyway, keep up the great blogging. I’m a longtime reader of your RSS feed.

  2. David Louis Edelman on April 3, 2007 at 2:20 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for the suggestion, Jeremy. Not sure if I want to change the existing categories right now, but I do like the idea of having them be a different type of classification than tags.

    Glad you’re enjoying the blog. Always good to have authors commenting here. It makes me feel important. :-)

  3. christopher on April 3, 2007 at 5:13 pm  Chain link

    i don’t really understand the idea of tags. aren’t they just a finer delineated category?

  4. David Louis Edelman on April 3, 2007 at 6:26 pm  Chain link

    I think it’s really just a question of semantics. Same concept, different nuance. I think “keywords” is probably a better term.

  5. JohnV on April 3, 2007 at 6:36 pm  Chain link

    I don’t have a lot to say about tags since I’ve only recently started thinking about them myself (which makes you post interesting), but I don’t think I agree with your claim that genre will disappear (only to be replaced by sub-genres).

    People like to classify things and put them in different groups. I would argue it comes naturally to us, much like patterns.
    And people are very good at seeing patterns. Just like faces, it seems to be hardwired into us.

    I certainly can’t say that I think the current genres will remain with us, but I just don’t see things like them going away unless something fairly basic about our nature changes.

    I do think that the internet makes these sub-genres a lot stronger than they ever could have been before, and that is a great thing.

  6. Jeremy James on April 3, 2007 at 9:26 pm  Chain link

    Christopher: think of categories as a “location” in that you can’t be in more than one place at once.

    Think of tags as pixels in a digital image; more pixels = a better job of describing what the picture is about.

    Or google Clay Shirky’s essay on the ontology of tags…

  7. Soni on April 3, 2007 at 10:11 pm  Chain link

    Personally, I’m waiting for a tag-based desktop GUI (hint to all you open source code monkeys out there looking for a project). The only thing I hate more than trying to figure out what folder a document fits into (does a “keyword search how-to for small business marketing” ebook go in SEO, marketing, business reference or what?) is spending time searching for it later, then half an hour later trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking when I stuck it into ‘copywriting.’

    Usually, I just end up sticking several copies into several different folders. Which just means that if I ever edit that document, I’ve got to find them all and edit them likewise. Or do the one document, many shortcuts crap.

    OTOH, a tag-based desktop that does away with folders altogether would make life ever so much easier. Just click around in the tag cloud on the screen until I find the tag I’m looking for, then I can see not only the file I’m looking for, but all related files and all related tags. It’s like organic mind map stimulation every time you open a file!

    Yeah baby.

    *sigh* stupid folders

  8. David Louis Edelman on April 3, 2007 at 10:19 pm  Chain link

    Don’t worry, Soni! Microsoft’s on the case! What you’re describing is pretty much what their new WinFS file system is supposed to do — make you forget about folder structure and just find what you want in the operating system through search or tagging. The whole thing is supposed to actually run off of a SQL Server database.

    And it’ll be ready by 2003, when Windows Vista comes out. 2004 at the latest.

  9. Jeremy James on April 4, 2007 at 2:19 pm  Chain link

    And it’ll be ready by 2003, when Windows Vista comes out. 2004 at the latest.


    In the meantime, Copernic or Google Desktop do a pretty good job of helping you find stuff based on keyword. It’s not quite tagging, but the idea is similar.

  10. David Louis Edelman on April 4, 2007 at 2:50 pm  Chain link

    I was very pleased with the Copernic Desktop search for quite a long time. It’s remarkably quick, and it’s got a very slick, easy-to-use interface. But then they came out with a new version which kept crashing my computer, and I had to uninstall.

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