The realms of tagging
Tagging as a popular phenomenon was developed online, where many tagging systems feature tags created by the members of a site. Thanks to this phenomenon, a lot of the intellectual thought about tagging centers around “folksonomies” and other ideas of collaborative tagging.
However, there are actually three distinct realms of tagging, and each requires you think about tagging in a slightly different way: private, public, and collaborative.
All three realms are hopefully somewhat self-explanatory, but there are some interesting things to note about each.
A private tagging system is one where a single individual tags items, searches for items, and browses for items. This is the single easiest type of tagging, because it requires the least thought. You can tag things the way you think about them without worrying how other people may think.
Private tagging systems are most often found in desktop software, but occasionally do make their way online. A lot of the early advice that I’ve published on Tagamac assumes that you are crafting a personal tagging system because of my early focus with Tagamac on desktop tagging.
A public tagging system is created and maintained by a single individual, but other people can search and browse the tags. An excellent example is the tags on every Tagamac article: I’m in complete control of them, but they are intended for the benefit of other people.
Public tagging is trickier than private tagging because besides being consistent, you also have to consider how the other people will use tags when browsing and searching, and tag accordingly. For example, my advice to keep tags singular may not be a good idea in public tagging, where people tend to think of tags as categories rather than information attached to a specific item.
It’s worth noting that you may well make different choices when tagging if the other users are searching or browsing for tags. In a browsing system, you don’t have to worry quite as much at what might be the terms that come first to mind for your visitors, because they’ll have all the terms in front of them. If it is a searching system, though, you’ll have to keep the ways your visitors might be thinking firmly in the forefront of your mind.
In a collaborative tagging system every user tags items. This kind of system is fairly prevalent online. “Folksonomy” is often used to refer to collaborative tagging.
Collaborative tagging has a lot of strengths, but consistency is usually not one of them. Because everyone tags differently, tags can quickly become a giant mess. On the other hand, if the user base is large enough items tend to be tagged more thoroughly than in either a private or public system. Generally, if you are contributing to a collaborative tagging system (such as del.icio.us or Flickr) you should try to keep your personal tagging system consistent (to maintain your own sanity) and also try to consistently use the tagging conventions that have evolved in the tagging system you’re using.