'Tagging' Lets Ordinary Users Organize the Internet

Commentator David Weinberger says a growing trend allows us all to have a say on how to organize the Internet. Weinberger is a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you were trying to organize the Internet to make all the pages on a given topic easy to find, how would you do it? Until recently, that's been left to the experts at search engines to figure out. Trouble is you may not agree with the experts on what a Web page is all about. Commentator David Weinberger says a growing trend on the Web allows us all to have a say.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Google's smart, but here's a tough problem for it. Let's say you type in `Africa,' `agriculture' and `grains' because that's what you're researching. You'll get lots of results, but you may miss pages about couscous because Google is searching for the word `grains' and doesn't know that that's what couscous is made of. Google knows the words on the pages but doesn't know what the pages are about. That's much harder for computers to get because what something is about really depends on what you're looking for. That same page on couscous that to you is about economics could be about healthy eating to me or about words that repeat syllables to someone else. And that's the problem with all attempts by experts and authorities to come up with neat organizations of knowledge. What something is about depends on who's looking.

Now a new tool is emerging on the Internet that helps us find things based on what we think they're about. It's called tagging, and without intending to, it's shaking up our ideas about how knowledge is organized. For example, take a look at the site that kicked off the new wave of tagging. It's called Delicious, and its Web address is simply del.icio.us. Let's say you come across the Moroccan Couscous Web page and you want to remember it, so you upload its Web address to your free page at Delicious that lists all the Web addresses you've saved. Then Delicious asks you to enter a word or two as tags, so you can find the Moroccan page later. You might tag it with `Morocco,' `main course' and `agriculture,' and then later you can see all the pages you've tagged with any of those words. And that's a handy way to organize a large list of pages.

But tagging at Delicious really took off because it's a social activity. Everyone can see all the pages anyone has tagged with, say, `Morocco,' `main course' or `agriculture.' This is a great research tool because just by checking the tag `agriculture' now and then, you'll see every page everyone else at Delicious has tagged that way. Some of those pages will be irrelevant to you, of course, but many won't be. It's like having the world of people who care about a topic tell you everything they've found of interest. And unlike at Google, you'll find the pages that people have decided are about your topic. That's the real change in aboutness.

Consider another tagging site, Flickr--that's F-L-I-C-K-R without the E--where you can upload photos you want to share with friends or the world. You might tag the snapshot you took of the guards at Buckingham Palace as `London' and `Buckingham,' but I might come across it and tag it as `big funny hats' because I'm working on a paper about fashion mistakes. You and I don't have to agree on what your photo is about. This takes classification and aboutness out of the hands of authors and experts. Now it's up to us readers to decide what something is about.

Not only does this let us organize stuff in ways that make more sense to us, but we no longer have to act as if there's only one right way of understanding everything, and that's a big lesson.

BLOCK: David Weinberger is a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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