Tagging: People Powered Metadata for the Social Web

Author, Gene Smith begins this book with a quote by Jon Udell, “When the novelty wears off, I think that tagging will have altered the information landscape in a fundamental way.” The original quote was first published in an InfoWorld article, titled Tag Mania Sweeps the Web, in 2005. I believe there is a lot of truth to the original quote, now in 2009, tagging is common in sites like Flickr or Delicious, and it seems nearly every new web application has some form of social tagging included. For students of Library and Information Science (like myself) this is indeed an important topic because it surely has “altered the information landscape – but thankfully this debate, which is better left in the LIS classroom, is not in Gene Smith’s book and instead he gives the reader a clear overview and practical guide of what tagging is and examples of how it is used in the context of web development.

Gene Smith is a principal at the company nForm, a user experience consulting firm in Edmonton, Canada. According to Smith’s personal website, Atomiq, the company is devoted to making their clients’ websites and interactive software better for the end users by doing customer research, information architecture, and creating effective prototypes. Smith’s interest in tagging (and the discussion that lead to the semantics) began in 2004 when he asked a simple question to the Information Architecture Institute mailing list inquiring whether there was a name for this type of user classification. He explains in the introduction that this book is a guide to the what and how (and sometimes why) of tagging, using real-world examples based on his research.

Smith explains that this is not a philosophical discussion of why people tag but more of a practical guide to what it is and how information architects, developers, and designers can implement tagging into their own websites. It is a comprehensive overview starting with the definition and value of tagging. The technical aspects of this book include a chapter on the architecture and technical design, but Smith did not overlook what tagging is at its core – that is, metadata which is also used as navigational elements in websites. The information architecture aspect of tagging is presented in a chapter devoted to interface design.

The book is structured very concisely with a simple and clear writing style. The chapters are arranged by topic and with many examples of screenshots, tables, and some sample code. Information is easy to find and practical. I believe the simple outline style of the book is a benefit, as with many subjects devoted to technology, the topic will likely evolve and change, while many of the websites will be redesigned in time so the screenshots will help the reader become oriented with the topics more easily.

At the moment, Smith’s book is the only definitive and clear guide to tagging available. Many recent publications discuss tagging in the context of Web 2.0 (for example, Joshua Porter’s, Designing for the Social Web, or Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing without Organizations) but they are not devoted entirely to tagging. There have been a few studies devoted to the practice of tagging, but Smith did not set out to write a book about user motivations for tagging, so his overview stands alone when compared to other literature on this topic. One criticism of the book though is that it does not have a convenient set of resources or links available for reference or further reading. Web links are included, but within the text, which makes it difficult to find a website easily if a reader wanted to refer to it again later.

Information architects are interested in how information is structured on a website, and as Smith puts it, are often tasked with developing organization schemes that work for a diverse population of users (p. 13). This underlines the importance of an understanding in tagging systems to information architects as they need to be aware of how users of a website are to find information while they are there. While tagging is not the only method IAs have for employing a classification or navigation system to a website, if the opportunity warrants itself for use in a such a system, it should be of interest for them understand how tagging can be used and engaged.

Smith’s book is recommended for information architects, web designers, and librarians who are interested in putting tagging into practice on their websites. The visualizations and concise outline make this book easy to read and refer to again. It is a practical guide for anybody who is unfamiliar with how tagging works and would like to know more.

  • Title: Tagging: People Powered Metadata for the Social Web
  • Author: Gene Smith
  • Publisher: New Riders
  • ISBN: 9780321529176
  • Date: 2008
  • Format: Softcover
  • Pages: 208
  • Cover Price: USD: $39.99

2 thoughts on “Tagging: People Powered Metadata for the Social Web

  1. Good point Dan, maybe we’ve just sort of taken tagging for granted by now… which could be why we need this book, and someday more like it, especially if we want to integrate tagging in our own websites.

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