Tagging: a lens into the cyber psyche?


What are tags? Why are they used? By whom and for what?

Tags are labels that cyberfolks attach to photos, videos, written works, web sites or other web resources they would like to categorize and share with a single word or phrase. Tags are an alternative to using search terms to find text — and are essential to finding photos and videos.

The Pew Internet Project surveyed nearly 2,400 American adults at the end of 2006 to learn about the prevalence of tagging. The survey found 1,623 Internet users in that first group (which correlates to an online penetration of 66% penetration). Among these Net users the survey found that (for complete PDF):

  • nearly one in three Internet users had used tags
  • about 7 percent had used them the day before the survey
  • taggers skewed a bit younger and a bit more educated than the general Web population but tagging seemed well distributed

The survey includes an interview with Web author David Weinberger, who suggests that tagging reveals a great deal about the tagger — telling us how that person, and groups of people, boil ideas down to their bare essentials. They are also, he says, a community building tool, an easy way to get people into the flow of contributing ideas to a site.

Weinberger is a co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the book that declared the web “a conversation.” He also wrote Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, about how and why people form connections over the Web.

The interview at the end of the Pew report is a tease to Weinberger’s forthcoming book on grassroots organizing tools such as tagging. The book will be titled, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.

Weinberger tells Pew:

“Maybe the most interesting thing about tagging is that now we have millions and millions of people who are saying, in public, what they think pages and images are about. That’s crucial information . . .”

If I understand Weinberger correctly, he suggests that cyberfolks are revealing their hot button words. Can advertisers use that? Can political persuaders use that? Can Web publishers use that? If we know the words that command attention that would seem to be the key to driving a message into the brain.

Furthermore, Weinberger argues that tagging is one of the gateway acts of user participation. “Tagging at public sites can give you a sense that you’re adding to the stream of shared knowledge,” he tells Pew.

Here again for your convenience is a link to the PDF of the report. The appendix shows how tags work at some of the more prominent websites.