Posted by: structureofnews | September 7, 2010

Getting Beyond Getting Beyond Tags

Over at The Future of Context, a post on the limitations of tags, which I heartily endorse.  Tags, it notes, are a very primitive way of identifying ideas and don’t really address the real nature of relationships.

I’d go further – the strengths of tags (relative ease of use, great flexibility) are also their weaknesses (lack of specificity, standarization).  And more importantly, tags don’t really address a deeper structural issue in how we look at information.

Consider stock tables or box scores.  No one suggests for a moment that we should run them as text, articles, or photos, and then tag (or micro-tag) the information.  The value there is in the structure – in how it’s laid out and how similar bits of information are next to each other – not in how it’s tagged, which only tells us about the broader content (eg: this is about the Cubs-Mets game on June 2, 2010.)

Yet we seem to be fixated on text (and to a lesser extent, photographs) as the organizing structure for most of the information we’re dealing with.  Even in discussions about topics pages, which are very useful ways to summarize and convey information, they are largely thought of as text and pictures rather than as tables or datasets.

That’s not to say that text and story/narrative isn’t important; of course it is.  But there’s a time and place for every kind of information, and the best-written wrapup of the day’s market trading doesn’t substitute for the stock tables.  Nor vice versa.  Both have their place as forms to communicate information effectively.

So part of the discussion here shouldn’t be just about how to make tags more effective, but really about how to reform the process of journalism so that we can both get the story – appropriately tagged, of course – as well as structure  information associated with it into a more usable form.

Right now no one has to do that – a markets reporter simply writes a story about that day’s activity, and the stock data comes from the stock exchange.

But imagine if that feed from the exchange didn’t exist; we wouldn’t have the stock tables, and we’d all be the poorer for it.  Now I’m not suggesting that the poor markets reporter be made to type out prices for all the stocks; but having him or her record prices of at least the 10 or 20 biggest stocks every day, for example, would create much more additional value beyond simply tagging.

In effect, that’s what Politifact has done with stories about politician’s statements – reported on them, fact-checked them, and then placed standardized information about each story into a database.

Tags have another disadvantage – they don’t force us to get regular, standardized information.  Again, let’s take that that hypothetical stock market reporter.  Today he writes about IBM and GM, recording their prices and tagging the information.  Tomorrow he writes about GM but not IBM, and again tags the information accurately.  The trouble is that when we want to construct a price chart of IBM, we’re missing a day.  Making him fill out a table every day with standard information we care about means we’ll always have enough to build a real historical and relationship database.  It does add to his workload, but arguably that’s a relatively minor increase in daily effort for a relatively large long-term increase in value.

So let’s get beyond getting beyond tags, and focus as much on how information is structured and constructed every day.


  1. Read hundreds of social media articles today and decided to give myself a 5-min break to leave you a comment.
    While criticizing the tag system, I found interestingly that you are using the old-category-system in a tagging mindset: one post, many categories, so that to reflect the different aspects that the post mentioned.
    Tag cloud is usually the first thing I look at (if not its extremely awesome or terrible design). It always have a clear picture of what this blog is about – categories cannot do that, and you didn’t give a clear answer of what is beyond the tag after all.

  2. You’re absolutely right – and probably reflects that I’m not great at tagging or categorizing. I’m big on structure and data, and it’s ironic that this blog isn’t actually organized that way.

  3. Typical Math graduate!
    You must be very geek back to university…

  4. […] Yet if we didn’t keep track of all those overwise boring statistics, we wouldn’t have access to all the details of all those baseball games ever played – and more importantly, all the byproducts that have come out of them. (Fantasy baseball leagues and trading cards, among them).  Luckily, baseball does keep all those stats (less luckily if you’re stuck between two baseball fans at a bar and all they do is cite stats at each other, but that’s another issue).  Ditto stock tables vs. daily market reports and all the resulting analysis that is enabled by being able to dissect a complete – and continuously updated – dataset rather than simply having an archive of stories. […]

  5. […] as the recipe example shows, even what we commonly think of as metadata – tags – aren’t enough sometimes.  Really structuring the information within stories – ingredients, cooking time, size of […]

  6. […] of the fundamental tenets of why we should structure the information in our notebooks rather than simply tag stories better. (Although that would be good too.) And the notion above that one of the main use cases for […]

  7. […] Exactly. […]

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