The what

Creating a consistent tagging system is like baking a perfect pie crust: it makes you salivate to think about, but some days it just doesn’t work out. Fortunately, consistent tagging (unlike a perfect pie crust) isn’t affected by humidity; all you need is some careful attention to detail. And perhaps the most important detail to keep in mind while you are tagging is “the what”.

Quite simply, the what is just your answer to a two-part question: what item and what attributes? Despite the simplicity of the question, knowing the what is a vital part of creating a consistent tagging system. You can take or leave my SLS guidelines, but if you really want consistency you’re going to have to ask yourself about attributes.

What item?

The first part of the what is usually pretty obvious: are you tagging photos, email, journal entries, characters in your novel, or something else entirely?

Obvious as it may be, deciding what items you are tagging can still require some thought. Although you can generally delineate items based on their file format, there are some exceptions to think about. For instance, JPEGs, PNGs, and GIFs are all images while Word, Pages, and RTF documents are all text documents. When answering “what item?” you’ll need to decide what items to group under a larger heading and which to separate out on their own.

Keep in mind that if you are grouping items you’ll want to use only the most generic groups. Thinking of Pages and Word documents as essays is not useful, even if you only ever write essays in Word and Pages. You may in the future write something in Word that is not an essay, and then your whole way of thinking about tags will get fouled up. When you aren’t using items inside specific programs or individual file formats, use the most general categories of items that you can.

If you’re having some trouble thinking of what items you’re tagging, here’s a list of common ones to get you started:

  • Photos (or images) — JPEGs, PNGs, TIFFs, etc.
  • Text documents — Word, Pages, RTF, etc.
  • Bookmarks (or web pages)
  • PDFs
  • Email
  • Other program-specific items

Once you know what items you are tagging, you can figure out what attributes to tag.

What attributes?

Knowing what attributes you are tagging is the heart of the what, and the key to crafting a consistent tagging system. Basically, you want to identify what you think of when you think of a given type of item. You can do this by looking at items that you have tagged in the past to see trends in what kinds of tags you’re using or by brainstorming out a list of an item’s attributes (or for best results do both).

For example, perhaps you tag text documents based on their status (unfinished, first draft, revised, etc.), their genre (nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc.), and their type of writing (essay, short story, fragment, etc.). If so, then status, genre, and type of writing are the attributes that you are tagging, and you should try to use them for all text documents (to the extent that it makes sense).

The attributes that you’ll use will differ based on the type of item, so you’ll have to come up with a unique list for each item type. Make sure not to use any attributes that are already available in the item’s metadata (after all, there’s more to life than tags).

Once you have your list of attributes for each type of item, you’ll need to decide which attributes on the list are worth tagging. After all, if you think of a text document’s subject but are never going to search for text documents based on subject then there’s no reason to use a subject tag.

At last, though, you should have an idea of what attributes you want to tag for any given type of item, and then all that’s left is to consistently tag based on those attributes. This will help you in two ways: first, you don’t have to waste time and energy when you’re tagging new items trying to figure out what tags to use because you’ll know which attributes you should tag. Second, you’ll know what kind of tags to search or browse for to find different kinds of items. And perhaps best of all, you’ll have a set of general guidelines based on your unique way of thinking about tagged items that will stay consistent over time.

There will of course be cases where you’ll not use an attribute for an item or will use another attribute, but in general knowing the what will allow you to keep your tags much more consistent than if you were just throwing tags on items based on your feelings and thoughts of the moment.

Finding the what

There’s no one correct way to find the what. Some people may want to sit down before they start tagging at all and deliberately map out a list of attributes for each type of item they will tag. If you do this, you’ll likely have a very consistent and well thought out tagging system. However, you could also just keep the what in mind while you’re tagging and observe what attributes you tend to use. It’ll be sloppier, but you’ll still end up with a more consistent tagging system than you would otherwise.

One last thing to remember is that the what will change over time. New software will come out and you’ll think of new ways to organize items or begin to think about tagged items differently. Even if you take the deliberate road and create a list of attributes to tag, you’ll need to be flexible. Putting some effort into figuring out the what early on will certainly be worthwhile, but there is ultimately no fighting the vicissitudes of time and the human brain.