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What Happened to Tagging? (2019)

May 22, 2022

Fourteen years ago, a dozen geeks gathered around our dining table for Tagsgiving dinner. No, that’s not a typo. In 2005, my husband and I celebrated Thanksgiving as “Tagsgiving,” in honor of the web technology that had given birth to our online community development shop. I invited our guests to share their ideas for dinner (and their favorite recipes) by tagging them with the keyword “tagsgiving,” and I used the same keyword to collect notes on our gathering. Even then, it was a weird thing to do. But it was a sincere reflection of our excitement about the social web, which no longer really exists.

That excitement drove me and my husband to start what you’d now call a social media agency. We were early bloggers, and spent a lot of time playing around with a new generation of user-driven websites and writing about what we found. When I wrote a Toronto Star article about some of these explorations, we suddenly found ourselves immersed in the relatively small community of people who were exploring “Web 2.0,” especially its potential for non-profit organizing and social change.

Tagging was a crucial tool for connecting those conversations, which is what inspired the idea of Tagsgiving. But both the vision for and function of tags transformed in less than a decade. While today’s hashtags are the descendants of 2005’s tags, they work very differently—and those differences reflect a larger transformation in the nature of the social web. Looking back at the tags of the early 2000s tells us a lot about where social media started, and even more about how we got to the online problems of today.

Let me start with a definition of tagging as it stood back then, when it was the backbone of “social bookmarking” services like del.icio.us, photo sharing services like Flickr, and indeed, much of the blogosphere. (Can I even use the term “blogosphere” in 2019?) In their article “The Informational Value of Social Networks,” the business scholars Hyoryung Nam and P.K. Kannan explain that:

Social tagging is a way for online users to categorize and share web content. Within a social tagging system, users describe and categorize web content with a set of their own keywords, called “tags,” and diverse content is searched and shared using these tags. Because tags generated by individual users also help other users search and organize content, the collections of individually generated tags are called “social tags.”

The idea of user-selected tags that categorize preexisting content won’t seem that staggering to Twitter and Instagram users, who routinely do the same thing with hashtags. But tags had a much more specific value in 2005, thanks to an increasingly obscure technology called RSS (Really Simple Syndication).

If you’re old enough and nerdy enough to remember Google Reader, you know RSS: It’s the web standard that puts content in machine-readable form, so it can magically move from your friend’s blog or from the New York Times website to a “newsreader” (like the now-defunct Google Reader) for your convenience. RSS has been the subject of any number of eloquent eulogies in recent years, though it still exists all over the web—in part because WordPress blogs include RSS feeds by default.

But there’s no doubt that far fewer people use newsreaders and RSS these days, in part due to the rise of social networks. As the technology attorney Dennis Kennedy points out in an article entitled “RSS, NOT R.I.P.” in the ABA Journal:

Twitter, Linkedln and Facebook have risen in importance as information resources. People are more likely to look for ways to pull information into those tools than pull it into a separate tool. Perhaps ironically, the phenomenal growth in iPhone, mobile and other apps to help us manage information resources has increased the number of places we look for it.

Back in the day, however, RSS was central to how people consumed information online, and tagging was a big part of that story. It’s easy to forget, but there was a good five years between the rise of user-generated content and the mass adoption of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In those years, ordinary humans were suddenly able to create and update our own webpages, without any programming knowledge. That’s what made blogging so revolutionary.

But without a one-stop shop for finding all the most relevant and interesting content, it sometimes felt easier to create your own blog posts than to find somebody else’s. That’s where RSS and tagging came in. As the legal writer Jason Krause explained in his 2003 ABA Journal article “Netting Information:” “Most of these Web logs are RSS-enabled, which means newsreader software can be programmed to send to your desktop items of interest picked up from these sites based on keywords.”

Those “keywords” were tags: subject matter labels that might be applied by a blog’s author as part of publishing a post, or by some eager user who found that post and stored it as a del.iciou.us bookmark, so that they and others could find it at a later date. Either scenario would give interested readers a way to find the post. My own newsreader was setup to show me every blog post that was added to del.icio.us with the tag nptech (for “non-profit technology”), and I also used tag-based feeds to follow a subset of topical blog posts from my favorite bloggers.

Tags could be used in more creative ways, too. In our business building online communities for non-profit clients, we often used tag-based RSS feeds to bring relevant content onto a website. It was easy to create a website that had tons of relevant news and links on a given subject, just by using an RSS “aggregator” to pull in all the latest blog posts and bookmarks that used a specific tag. (Of course, that could also backfire: I once set up a client site that was intended to surface news about communities of practice by pulling in content with the tag “COP.” Instead of communities of practice, they ended up with a webpage full of police-fetishizing pornography.)

Whether you used tags to categorize your own blog posts on the fly, pull relevant stories into your newsreader, or build self-populating websites, the combination of tags and RSS had the effect of decentralizing and democratizing the organization of information, as well as the development of community and relationships. In contrast with established, coordinated taxonomies for categorizing information (like the Dewey decimal system, in widespread use by libraries), tagging systems were “folksonomies:” chaotic, self-organizing categorization schemes that grew from the bottom up. Anyone could join in the conversation around nptech, fairuse, or webstandards by writing a blog post, bookmarking a web page on del.icio.us, or adding a photo to Flickr—all you had to do was apply the relevant tag.

The rise of Twitter and Facebook—and especially, the arrival of the Facebook home feed—gave online news consumers an easier option. Instead of requiring you to invest in finding your favorite tags and blogs, and subscribing to them in your newsreader, the social networks’ algorithms now show you the content you’re likely to find interesting. It’s so much less work that even I, the one-time host of Tagsgiving and creator of rsstocracy.com (an RSS fan site, basically), now just let the algorithm choose my content for me. I look at what Facebook surfaces. I look at what appears in my Twitter feed. I look at the recommendations that Pocket places on each new Firefox tab. I’ve so completely abandoned tags and RSS that when I got my annual subscription reminder from Feedly, the RSS reader I adopted once Google Reader closed, I literally couldn’t remember when I’d last looked at my RSS subscriptions.

On the surface, that might seem like a win: Instead of painstakingly curating my own incoming news, I can effortlessly find an endless supply of interesting, worthwhile content that the algorithm finds for me. The problem, of course, is that the algorithm isn’t neutral: It’s the embodiment of Facebook and Twitter’s technology, data analysis, and most crucial, business model. By relying on the algorithm, instead of on tags and RSS, I’m letting an army of web developers, business strategists, data scientists, and advertisers determine what gets my attention. I’m leaving myself vulnerable to misinformation, and manipulation, and giving up my power of self-determination.

When we fret about the perils of an algorithm-driven society, tagging represents the road not taken. It was a technology that supported decentralized content creation and community, rather than the limited number of centralized social networking sites that house the majority of online conversation today. It was an approach in which everyone added a little bit of value—for instance, in the form of tags that provided context and made content findable (and not as a way to self-promote, but just because it was easy and helpful). It was a form of conversation that centered content and ideas, not celebrities and influence: You might connect with someone who regularly used the same tags that you did, but that was because they shared your interests, not because they had X thousand followers.

And yes, it required a little more effort. But when I look around the web today, and at the many problems that have emerged from our submission to the almighty algorithm, I wonder if the effort was a feature, not a bug. By requiring us to invest ourselves in the job of finding content and building community, tag-driven conversations made us digital creators, not just digital consumers. It’s a social web we could have again—and one for which we could be truly thankful.

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