More Tagging Insights

An interesting panel on tagging explored some of the applications and the social and commercial implications of tagging as these tools mature.

One angle that interested me is that groups develop their own syntax for tags and the characteristics of those tag lists are different as a result. One panelist pointed out that “,” “social_network” and “socialnetwork” have different meanings on different sites and in different communities because the groups who agree on these syntaxes are using them to tag different kinds of content. On, people tagging “design” are referring to visual design while on Magnolia they’re referring to software design. Same tag, different groups, different meanings.

I was also interested in some interesting applications of tagging to more traditional collecting. Some libraries are making it possible for their visitor to tag books in their collections. This makes it possible for libraries to build super-catalogs that are much richer than traditional card catalogs. Some museum curators are finding that visitors to their collections have very different descriptions of what’s in them than the curators themselves. Tagging enables them to unlock that consensus of critical opinion.

One panelist pointed out that tagging serves a hierarchy of needs and as you advance in the hierarchy, it becomes more important to tune in to the syntax that others are using. At its most basic level, tagging is a way to save information. As you move into community applications, it’s important to understand and adapt to standards used by others. It’s also important to become more thorough in tag selection so that you help refine content descriptions for others.

Tags can affect traffic to your own content. One panelist noted that his sister’s photos tagged “voyeur” get more traffic than any other photos, clearly because they appeal to a base human instinct.

They’re also a way to find out what groups are thinking. Look at these tags for an album by Kevin Federline. Does this tell you something about this artist? Incidentally, Amazon has moved into tagging in a big way as a means to help customers find products that interest them. In this application, Amazon is relying on other customers to recommend products through their tags, without the intervention of professional editors or retail professionals.

Weinberger NCF keynote: users take back power

Popular blogger and Cluetrain Manifesto co-author David Weinberger gave an enlightening and funny keynote presentation to the New Communications Forum in Las Vegas this morning. Here are my notes:

For the last 100 years, broadcast has dominated our communications and our democracy. Broadcast is now being put in its place. Many-to-many communications will become more important than broadcast.

It’s not about the content. We’re able to get past broadcast because we’re able to escape reality. Broadcast works because it’s constrained by the limitations of reality.

You can’t be in two places at the time, so everything has to have its own place. It’s a terrible limitation that the digital world escapes.

In mainstream media, there’s a limited amount of space. So only a few things get to appear and only a few people get to right. It’s the same order of information for everyone. Take away those constraints and now everybody can talk. We decide what’s interesting to us.

The authority system is changing. This goes back to the basic assumptions of our culture. The base assumption is that the larger the project, the more control you need. If you want to build something big, you need managers and managers to manage the managers.

The Web is the largest collection of human intellect we’ve ever built. It’s also the most usable and reliable. The Web is a permission-free zone.

Most of our institutions are built around the urge to control. But now the walls are down. A business isn’t the best sort of information about its products. You want to find other users. If you want to know how it is to drive a Mini Cooper in Boston in the winter, you’re not going to get the best information from the Mini Cooper website.

Broadcast gives the same message to everybody to drive down the cost of marketing. The only issue with this is that there’s no market for messages. Nobody likes being messaged. So we’re engaged in war with our customers, trying to make them listen to something they don’t want to hear.

Whole notion of markets has been affected by the notion of messages. Actual markets consist of customers and they’re talking all the time. We do it in discussion sites, mailing lists and consumer rating sites.

What is more boring than classified ads? They’re boring. But on Craigslist, we talk about what we’re posting in classified ads. And we do it through tags. We are so social that we even make bookmarks into a social activity.

Marketing, business and media are all about fake, phony voices. Conversations are open and honest.

What weblogs aren’t. They’re not about cats. They’re not about people in their pajamas writing about cats. They’re about things that we care about.

Encyclopedia Britannica has 65,000 important topics. Wikipedia has 1.5 million topics, including the deep-fried Mars bar and the heavy metal umlaut. Britannica is constrained by the physical because 65,000 topics fill 32 volumes.

Blogs aren’t journalism. They’re blank pieces of paper. The fact that they’ve been judged in the context of journalism is because the media can’t get past itself.

Journalists define their value in terms of their judgment. That has passed into the hands of readers. Since people first began exchanging news articles by e-mail, judgment passed into the hands of users. That’s our front page, what we recommend to each other. The Web is a recommendation engine and it has been since the beginning. A good example of how this plays out is Digg.

This week, USAToday introduced a bunch of conversational components, including Digg-like recommendations. But there’s only a thumbs-up, not a thumbs-down. This misses a key characteristic of readers, which is we want revenge. USAToday also introduced bloggers on its site. This is a titanic change, also links to things outside of USAToday.

We’ve been telling businesses for a couple of decades that information is important and businesses want to control important things. It turns out that NOT controlling the information actually makes it better.

Blogs aren’t professional. They are written sub-optimally. You don’t have time to ponder and polish. We give them pre-emptive forgiveness. There is an acknowledgement of human fallibility, the very thing that marketing messages don’t have. Marketing messages are perfect and we hate that. Humans are fallible. They make us human in ways that marketers won’t permit.

Bloggers with just a few people linking to them are little knots of community. Every blogroll link is a little act of selflessness. The Web was built out of these little acts of generosity.

Home page of NY Times: Every link on the home page links back to the New York Times, except those that link to ads. This is narcissism.

Blogs aren’t simple: Good marketing is supposed to be boiling things down to a few memorable words. But ideas aren’t simple. A Bush position paper 2,500 words long generated more than 2,500 links from bloggers. We take things that appear simple and make them complex. We’ve been living under this regime of broadcast simplicity. We’ve been spoken to as morons for years but we don’t speak to each other that way.

Blogs aren’t content – Content is really important, but it’s not just the content. If you go into a store and take a shopping cart and take all the clothing that fits you and nothing else and put it in a pile, they’ll throw you out. That’s because they own the organization. But if you put up a website where people can’t find what they want, they’ll throw you out. People want to own the organization.

You shouldn’t believe what you read in Wikipedia. That doesn’t mean it isn’t credible. If you read an article on something you know about, you’ll probably find errors. You look at how heavily it’s been edited. Look at the discussion pages, which have amazing learned discussions. What makes Wikipedia credible is that it puts up notices about articles that are suspect. There are more than 100 warnings available and you can create your own.

The presence of these warnings saying that this article isn’t perfect makes Wikipedia more credible. It’s more interested in informing us that speaking as the voice of God. It’s more interested in having us come to informed beliefs. You’ll never see these notices in the NY Times, Britannica or marketing materials.

The attempt to be infallible drives out credibility and makes us look like assholes.

Peer-to-peer is about us making the communication world ours again. Wikipedia is for us. It’s ours. It cares first and foremost about us. Craigslist is ours. People fall in love and get married on Craigslist.

YouTube is ours. It enables us to organize content the way that we want to, the way no TV channel ever could. It feels like ours. It exists for us.

Google feels like ours. That simple home page feels personal. If marketers saw that home page, they’d want to throw all kinds of ads around it.