A social analysis of tagging

(or how tagging transforms the solitary browsing experience into a social one)

In a previous essay, I wrote about the cognitive aspect of tagging – describing how people tag, and why they find it easy. There is another, equally important aspect of tagging that I did not touch upon – the “why” of tagging. Why do people tag? For many, tagging is for sharing their own information and watching others. Even if you tag mostly to remember your own stuff, it is difficult to remain untouched by the presence of others. This article will explore how tagging lets us connect with others.(1)

social analysis of tagging

From solitary to social

Web browsing can be a solitary experience. Computers are individualistic devices. Many afternoons, I sit at my desk in our office, browsing the web, listening to music. I come across an article I want to remember. I tag it. That moment, I go from wandering the web alone to joining a group of others. This transition is important. In a moment, I am transported to a crowd of people with whom I have at least one thing in common. And best of all, I can enjoy their presence, but I don’t need to converse. After being on many mailing lists for many years, let me say, conversation is often overrated. Often, I like to be in the company of others, without needing to follow threads and participate. It is the same reason that I like working in a cafe – enjoying the presence of others without the burden of active interaction. Similarly, tags provide a companionable social hum that I enjoy.

A behaviorist would say that the I get reinforcement the moment after I tag. The social experience is pleasurable. It gets me hooked, it keeps me coming back.

Alternatively, on tagging the article, I might learn that I am the only one interested in that item, the one person who cared to tag that resource. Perhaps I am simply the first one. Perhaps I will become a trendsetter – my act of tagging will enable others to follow behind, discovering my footsteps. I can always imagine…

Notice how this works on Flickr. Someone takes a picture. They call it a squaredcircle. Another person is struck by that – they create their own squared-circle. Soon, there are many more. Squaredcirles become a Flickr trend. Like latteart..

This is the individual perspective. What is happening on the social level with tagging. I examine that next.

Ad-hoc groups or crowds

From the beginning, the World Wide Web has been a place for group formation, to find and connect with like-minded others. An important characteristic of tagging systems is that they lead to ad-hoc group creation, lowering the barriers to finding like-minded others, enabling social discovery and connections.

The basic social formations supported by tagging are more like crowds than true groups. I see the milling crowds and have some idea about what they are doing (reading, watching), but I don’t know these people – they are not part of my network or members of my mailing lists and online communities I subscribe to. These are ad-hoc groups brought together by a particular tag or resource. (Note. Systems like MyWeb2.0 are moving away from this by incorporating social networks.)

Four conditions for wisdom of crowds

Starting with Le Bon’s analysis in 1895, psychologists have focused on the negative aspects of crowd behavior. Recently James Suroweicki has refuted this notion. His elegant analysis of four conditions that can lead to “wisdom of crowds” seems relevant for tagging systems. The four principles are
(1) diversity of opinion – each individual brings their idiosyncratic perspective to bear on the issue. (this is definitely true for tagging. There is a long tail of tags).
(2) independence of members from one another (that people make independent decisions. This is why mass copying of others’ tags is not a good idea.)
(3) decentralization (with tagging power does not reside in a central location, but it does seem to very influenced by the first few taggers..)
(4) a good method for aggregating opinions (Tag clouds and simple lists seem to work well for this, though better methods are needed.

So far, tagging systems seem relatively free of negative aspects of other types of crowd behavior. For example, blog comments and trackbacks often seem to encourage herd mentality and there are instances of moblike behavior. So far, I am yet to see mob-like behavior on a tagging system, though there are examples of frenzied tagging behavior.

Stalking, imitation and gossip

What would a good social system be without some means of means of stalking, imitation and gossip? Part of social life is all the things we pretend we don’t do when in polite company. Most of us, at some point or the other stalked someone (remember when you could “finger” people). Some report learning about others’ personal lives using their me and craigslist tags. And of course, we can imitate people we watch (copy their items and tags). Recently, I have started noticing the watercooler type post-event conversations around photographs on Flickr (facilitated by specific event tags).

Luckily, tagging systems do not promote popularity lists the way blogs do. If they did, then this rich social tapestry might degenerate to popularity contests, and otherwise sane people would start behaving as in high school (specifically American high school. It did not work this way in Indian high schools. We had an entirely different set of problems!).

Tagging is malleable

Like all good social structures, tagging is malleable – it takes the form best supported by the content, rather than impose a rigid structure on the content. On Flickr, can lead to ad-hoc collaboration, collection self-expression that is very different than the type of tagging frenzy we witness for popular articles on del.icio.us. As tagging spreads we are likely to see other types of emergent ad-hoc collaboration.

Social transmission of information

To summarize my previous article – tagging captures our individual conceptual associations, but does not force us to categorize. It enables loose coordination, but does not enforce the same interpretation of a concept. We could all tag items as “art” but mean very different things. That would create chaos in a shared folder scheme, but works well in a social tagging system.

Tagging and Collaborative Filtering

By allowing loose coordination, tagging systems allow social exchange of conceptual information. Earlier I had written how collaborative filtering can be likened to a social process (pdf) whereby like minded individuals share recommendations of books, movies etc. I watch a movie, I tell a friend that I liked it. In turn, she recommends a movie to me. Tagging facilitates a similar but richer information exchange. I comment that a movie is “romantic”, or “a good holiday movie”. Everyone who overhears me has access to this metadata about the movie. The social exchange goes beyond collaborative filtering – facilitating transfer of more abstract, conceptual information about the movie. (Note. the preference information is transferred implicitly – we are more likely to tag items we like than don’t like).

Tagging enables social coordination that is simultaneously more direct and abstract than collaborative filtering. More abstract since we are exchanging conceptual information. More direct, since there is no algorithm mediating our connection. When we navigate by tags, we are directly connecting with others.

Flickr and del.icio.us both show that tagging helps in the spread of ideas, memes, trends and fashions. A related question – what role does it play in concept development, in social consensus building? Our concepts and languages are constantly in flux. If tagging systems allow a loose coordination of terms across people, then the question arises: “What role do tagging systems play in ebb and flow of concepts”.

Concepts like squaredcircle and latteart are born and supported by Flickr. But what about more complex concepts?

To examine this question, let us consider two much-tagged concepts. The first one was tagged more than 230,000 times on del.icio.us (by October 2005), is the topic of many articles and blog-posts, the tagline of many applications and more recently the butt of many jokes and much ridicule. Yes, I am talking about Web 2.0. The second concept I am interested in examining is AJAX.

There is a fascinating difference between the two concepts, how they came to be, and their tagging trajectories.

A concept in search of a name

The term AJAX was coined by Jesse James Garrett in February 2005. People immediately got the concept AJAX. For many, it was a recognition of a concept they already implicitly understood, rather than a new concept they had to form. It demonstrates the power of naming something at the right time. The term AJAX took off – in the blogosphere, in the del.icio.us world. There has been no looking back. (Read Clay Shirky and Tom Coates for an analysis of the AJAX tag).

A name in search of a concept

Contrast that with the term Web 2.0. It was introduced by Tim O’Reilly, and first used on del.icio.us in March 2004. By October 2005, it had been used 230,000 times.

You might think that with so many people using the same word there must be some consensus regarding “Web 2.0”. You might presume from this tagging frenzy that people understood the concept of Web 2.0. You would be wrong. I was.

First we had the conference. Then the experts starting defining it almost on a daily basis. But none of the definitions would quite stick. Then it became the butt of jokes. Web2.0 validator, BullshitGenerator, Supercilious, Web2.0 or not, Flocksucks, etc. And now, even the experts have started rejecting the term. This analysis and rejection of the term is mostly happening on blogs, comments and trackbacks. It will be interesting to watch if and when this reverberates in the tag world.

Today, there is no consensus regarding what the term means. A valid question is – why were so many people tagging things Web 2.0 if no one understood what it meant. My hypothesis is that this is due to the nature of tags which only require you to make a conceptual association with a resource. You never need to say what something definitely “is” or “is not”. It does not encourage you to ask the hard questions: “What is not Web2.0?”; “How is Web2.0 different than previous concepts?”

Interestingly, the daily expert definitions and the Web2.0 spoof sites (Web 2.0 validator and Web 2.0 or not) attempt to do what tagging systems do not – put boundaries around the concept in a more definitive manner.(2)

This highlights both the strength and weakness of tagging. On the one hand, tagging allows social coordination </strong even when a concept is fuzzy. On the other hand, it never forces a decision, so you can reach a tagging frenzy even if the concept is ultimately rejected.


I strongly believe that all good social systems need to serve the individual motive. Tagging works because it strikes a balance between the individual and social. It serves the individual motive of remembering, and forms a ad-hoc social groups around it. If you are designing a tagging system you need to understand how it serves the individual and what sort of social formations it supports.

Finally, writing this piece reminded me how much I admire good designers. It took me a while to gain clarity regarding how tagging works on a social level and a cognitive level. And I am simply deconstructing. What came before are the people who dreamt this up in their minds. Hats off to them (once I buy a hat that is ;->).

Coming next in this series on tagging – Navigating by tags

(1):Among tagging systems, I am most familiar with del.icio.us and Flickr and my writing reflects that.
(2): I am hoping that this will inspire someone to take a closer look at the tagging trajectory of the term Web2.0 and correlate it to the rise and fall of the term on the blogosphere.)

Copyright & Usage
This article and image is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Use it as you need to – just remember to attribute me and send a link back as appropriate.

8 thoughts on “A social analysis of tagging

  1. This is brilliant!

    Have you thought about what impact tagging will have on learning and community as it becomes more and more mainstream? I feel like it could be significant, and I wish some of the sociologist from the Boomer and early GenX generations would pay attention. There’s something fascinating brewing here…

    What really starts to make my head spin is when I start thinking about the shifts in quality of the collective concepts and information, once del.icio.us (or a particular tagging community) reaches a critical mass of the population of the world.

  2. What really starts to make my head spin is when I start thinking about the shifts in quality of the collective concepts and information, once del.icio.us (or a particular tagging community) reaches a critical mass of the population of the world.

    That makes my head spin too! There is something fundamentally new going on here with tag based exchange of concepts.

    Interestingly, what it most reminds me of is concept & consensys development within small communities, villages – that anthropologists would study. They have their own launguage, concepts etc. Its a tight social network. Tagging makes these geographically spread out groups similar to these villages & tribes – except that instead of conceptual transmission occuring through physical proximity, and conversation – the social formation itself is created by and supported through tags. And the whole process of concept development is accelerated because the speed of exchange and aggregation of trends is accelerated.

  3. If you are designing a tagging system you need to understand how it serves the individual and what sort of social formations it supports.

    This was a fairly large consideration for Rogue Connect when we implemented a folksonomy tagging tool little over a fortnight ago.

    We havne’t left ours to be completely adhoc, rather when you’re viewing back tags you can actually view them by categories. The two things members can tag at the moment are profiles and fashion blog entries. When you’re viewing all the tags, you have the choice to display one or the other. Maybe you’re only interested in ‘sexy’ people, so you’d select profiles, or if you’re interested in ‘sexy’ outfits, you’d choose fashion entries.

    So far the response has been pretty positive to this way of doing it!

  4. Daniel,
    I checked out RogueConnect. It looks like an interesting use of tagging – is there a quick explanation of the site somewhere?

    I am curious what type of tagging will become more popular on your site – tagging profiles, or entries. If I tag someone’s outfit “sexy”, in a way I am indirectly tagging that person “sexy” as well. Its more subtle. I wonder if people will be more comfortable tagging objects (or blog entries referring to objects) rather than people.

    Do you have any data on this? Or am I misunderstanding how RogueConnect works?

  5. Hi Rashmi,

    You’re pretty bang on with Rogue Connect. So far (and we’re talking only a fortnight here really, we’ve only promoted this feature to the community) members are preferring to use tagging for fashion entries. The second most favoured use of tagging is tagging people’s profile, but not their own. Checking from the backend it seems the average user who has adopted the feature (and they’ve only been encouraged to from the middle of the week) tags themselves a few times (or not at all) but is more than happy to tag other members a lot more times.

    So from that, it seems that people are more comfortable tagging objects (and indirectly tagging the member, the other end of your example would be being tagged ‘baglady’, that would be a pretty big reflection of the person!!).

    I haven’t got around to publishing an explanation (the programming is keeping me busy haha); essentially it’s an exclusive social network aimed at the 18-25 market but open to people 16+. People can apply for an account (existing members vote on whether or not they should be given full membership). Existing members can also invite people, they have a limited amount of invites that will gaurntee the person an account, after that the person they invite gets bonus votes (thus making it a lot easier to get in to the site). Fashion is to the site (or at least building to be), what music is to MySpace, and with a fairly simple style blog the response has been pretty positive.

    Cheers, Daniel

  6. Over at Freshblog we’re working on an interactive tagging system that we’re calling Freshtags. This is a system that builds on the use of del.icio.us for categories in blogger. FreshTags features an expandable category menu that reacts to other sites running the script, as well as to search engines, and will expand a menu of posts in your sidebar to match a search term or previously viewed tag. Your site can become interactive, and responsive to reader interests, automatically. There’s two ways that this can work for you

    The first is tag-grabbing. FreshTags can “grab” tags from search queries, and some other sites with taggable content, and reflect those “previously viewed” tags on the currently displayed page of your site.

    The second mode is tag-passing. FreshTags can “pass” tags between sites that are running the service. As an example, If you expand the “Culture” category on Freshblog, then visit Greg’s Vent blog, you’ll find the “Culture” category there pre-expanded.

    The goal of both of these modes of operation is to enable context-sensitive surfing between blogs, and to customize the presentation of your content for the reader.”

    Version 0.5 launched this week, and we’re looking for comments / feedback etc. at


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