More to life than tags

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: tags are an extremely flexible way to organize the mad rush of information that is your computer. As you no doubt have picked up (from the existence of this blog, if nothing else), I have a bit of a love affair with tags.

However, while tag-love is a special and beautiful thing, if you are going to create a really great tagging system one of the most important things you have to know is when not to tag.

Remembering that there’s more to life than tags is sometimes difficult, particularly if you’ve just discovered tags and had that little “ah-ha!” moment when you realized that folders are not the only way (if you haven’t had this moment, take it from me: it’s a good one). Many converts to tagging, in their zeal to jump into a new system of organization, forget a simple fact: tags are the least effective metadata you have available to use.

This is because most metadata comes in key / value pairs. The key is what the information is (for example, the date a document was created), and the value is the information specific to the item (for example, I have a text document on my computer that was created on Dec. 17, 2005). Key / value metadata is really useful, because you can search a specific key based on a specific value, so you know exactly what kind of items you should find. Custom searches can be targeted very effectively using key / value metadata.

Tags, unlike most metadata, are just a value. Unless you get tricky with your tagging, a tag contains no information about what it represents. If I tag a photo “paris” it could be the city or the celebrity, and until I’ve looked at each of the photos that my search turns up I won’t know.

Because searching through key / value metadata is far more effective than searching through tags, you need to make sure you know what kinds of metadata are already attached to the items you are tagging. Unless you’ve made a conscious effort not to duplicate information from key / value metadata in your tags, you may well discover that tagging and finding items is more of a head-ache than it’s worth.

There are several ways you can find out what metadata is attached to an item before you begin tagging. The Finder’s Get Info window is an excellent place to discover the basic, automatic information that gets attached to every file on your computer. You can also choose File→New Smart Folder in the Finder to see some of the information that you can easily search. Third party Spotlight extenders like FileSpot can help even more in this regard. In iPhoto, you can find the large amount of information automatically attached to photographs by selecting a photograph and choosing Photos→Get Info or hitting command-I. Most other programs that include tags have some sort of key / value metadata attached to items, as well. You just have to find it. (The shortcut command-I is fairly prevalent for getting such info; if you’re at a loss, just try it to see what happens.)

Once you’ve figured out what metadata is already attached to a type of item, then when you’re tagging those items you should make a conscious effort not to duplicate that metadata.

Tags are amazing and flexible, but unless you know when not to tag they will make your life needlessly complicated.