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The art and science of tags

 
 
Reply Sun 7 Sep, 2008 10:04 pm
I have been going over some old threads in which I have participated and tagging them. I've also been reviewing the new threads to see how others have been tagging threads. My preliminary conclusion: your tags suck!

Now, to be fair, not all of your tags suck -- just a significant portion of them. And admittedly, we're all still getting the hang of riding this new bicycle. Right now, tags are mostly useful as bookmarks, so anything will do. I'm sure that, once all of the refinements are in place, the tags-as-bookmarks paradigm will shift to more of a tags-as-user-created-forums model, and navigating through the site with tags will be second-nature to even the most recalcitrant of veteran members. Still, I think we can agree that, even now, when it comes to tags, some people just aren't getting it.

A really useful tag should be more than just a personal bookmark, a sort of a cyber "Kilroy was here" written on the side of a thread. It should serve as both an accurate label of the thread's content and a link to other threads which also share that theme. The challenge in tagging threads, however, is in anticipating how others might tag their threads. Since there is no authoritative guide to tagging, each user must not only come up with their own tags, but also figure out if others will settle on the same tags. It's a bit like building a bridge from one river bank without being able to see the other side. Sometimes the bridge goes nowhere, and sometimes it's surprising what one finds on the other side.

Social scientists would call this "cooperation under conditions of anarchy." Thomas Schelling, in his book Strategy of Conflict, used the example of a husband and wife who go their separate ways in a department store after agreeing to meet again in an hour. They neglect, however, to agree on a place at which they will meet. So where do they end up? Each spouse needs to anticipate the other spouse's decision, as well as the other spouse's anticipation of their own decisions. Despite that level of complexity, most spouses (when tested by researchers) usually were able to find each other without much problem.

In the same way, tagging requires not only a sense of what tags are appropriate for a particular thread, but also how that tag will link to other threads that are being tagged by other members. And it all has to be accomplished without anyone telling you what to do or how to do it. It's not always easy, but then it shouldn't be brain surgery either. And bearing in mind that your tags suck, let me offer just a few suggestions for better living through tagging:

1. FULL NAMES: I know that "Obama" and "McCain" are probably two of the most popular tags being placed on threads these days, but what if the thread is about Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain? Which Clinton is the "Clinton" tag referring to? How useful would a "Kennedy" tag be? In order to avoid confusion, I always use first and last names. I think you should too.

2. AVOID AMBIGUITY: In conjunction with the above, try to avoid ambiguous tags that can lead in two or more directions at once. "Viruses", for instance, can refer to both computer viruses and the kinds of viruses that infect people. When you're searching for one, you probably aren't interested in the other.

3. USELESS TAGS: In going over my old threads, I have deleted the "news" tag from any thread that had originally appeared in the "General News" forum. With the elimination of the forums, "news" as a tag no longer conveys any meaning ("international news" isn't much better). It's like the coccyx: a vestigial reminder of something that once was useful but now is totally useless. Get rid of it.

4. RULES OF THUMB As a rule, a tag that describes a general category is better than one that is too specific. Likewise, more formal beats less formal. For example, "children" is a better tag than "kids". And tags that are used just to score points against the author of the thread tend not to be very useful at all, although there are exceptions.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 9 • Views: 2,697 • Replies: 10

 
Robert Gentel
 
  2  
Reply Sun 7 Sep, 2008 10:26 pm
@joefromchicago,
I think some of the examples you give are of people who do get it, and are using tags like that intentionally to be funny. It usually just takes one or two people giving it at least 5 legitimate tags to replace them with more useful ones.
jespah
 
  2  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 04:09 am
Yep, it's the group that's going to, when the dust clears, determine which tags show up for a particular topic.

I have seen a number of vanity tags, some nasty ones and some nonsense ones. But they tend to be replaced by better ones as more and more people do tagging.

One idea I think folks might want to embrace is going in and tagging topics (whether their own or someone else's, it doesn't matter) which only have as a tag something really generic/a reflection of the old forums structure. Sports is a lousy tag by itself, but it's perfectly fine when coupled with, say:
baseball,Barry Bonds,record,asterisk

Yes, the asterisk tag will also bring in lexicographers, but a person getting a holistic view of the tags will see that it's got something to do with Bonds breaking the home run record.
0 Replies
 
msolga
 
  1  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 05:16 am
@joefromchicago,
Oh, I don't know, Joe. I find the more specific tags (as opposed to the generalized ones) useful. Often the specific information determines whether I'll initially read a thread or not, as opposed to the bookmarking function. Imagine if all the US election threads were tagged "US politics". Imagine wading through all of them (!) to find out what each discussion is actually about. I am most likely one of those folk who are "just not getting it", but hey, this works for me! Very Happy
0 Replies
 
caribou
 
  2  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 07:45 am
I agree that some tags are just not useful. The mean, snarky and rude. The completely useless and derogatory.

But as for the rest, maybe I don't understand tags....
Tags are to make it easier to find things, not only for yourself but for other people. That's pretty vast. Some people may look for "kids" as opposed to "children". I think tagging things with as many tags as you can think of going from general to specfic, and remembering plurals and lack of plurals, covers the broad spectrum. "Bill Clinton, Clinton" are both good tags in my mind. And somone searching just "Clinton" will soon figure out "Bill Clinton" is really what they are looking for.

The tags are just beginning. They are going to sort themselves out with use over time.

Or do I just not get tags?
0 Replies
 
cyphercat
 
  2  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 11:11 am
Oooh, I may have done "kids." I tagged a couple of Millsberry threads and I was thinking that if I was a kid looking for kid-related crap on a2k, I'd search "kids" not "children." However, I did at least tag it both "children" and "kids." I was under the impression that using several tags isn't a bad idea anyway.

Oh, and I see that some spoil-sport is re-tagging the whining thread so it has more "useful" tags showing... Yes, by all means, let us root out and destroy humor, it's messy after all! Hmph!
(just kiddin')
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 12:02 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Robert Gentel wrote:
I think some of the examples you give are of people who do get it, and are using tags like that intentionally to be funny.

Then they don't get it.

Robert Gentel wrote:
It usually just takes one or two people giving it at least 5 legitimate tags to replace them with more useful ones.

I've seen that stated elsewhere -- that there's some sort of reverse-Gresham's law at work here, where the good tags drive out the bad ones -- but I don't see it in practice. From what I can gather, tags aren't ordered by relevance. If anything, they're ordered by priority in time. For instance, I gave a John McCain thread a "John McCain" tag. It already had five tags, one of which was "mcshitcain" (a tag that the tagger must have subsequently deleted). Despite being more relevant than "mcshitcain," my tag didn't take its place; instead, it didn't make the top five and was hidden from general view.

Now, frankly, that doesn't matter to me -- it's not like my self esteem is riding on these tags or anything. But, as I said, I don't see how a tag gets "promoted" unless other people, in effect, "vote" for it by giving the thread the same tag. I've done that, but I wonder if anyone else is doing that. Now if there was some sort of program that measures the relevance of tags, so that the five most pertinent tags are listed first, then I'd agree: we can expect that the good tags will drive out the bad ones. I just don't see anything like that happening right now.
DrewDad
 
  3  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 12:22 pm
@joefromchicago,
One person here who has now tagged this thread as "whining."
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 12:22 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
I've seen that stated elsewhere -- that there's some sort of reverse-Gresham's law at work here, where the good tags drive out the bad ones -- but I don't see it in practice.


Click the first few tags you linked to, there are no topics there anymore.

Quote:
From what I can gather, tags aren't ordered by relevance.


They are ordered by the most times they've been used. That's why it needs at most 2 people doing it right to outweigh a single person doing it wrong.

Quote:
If anything, they're ordered by priority in time.


That might be the tie breaker right now, other tie breakers like whether the tag appears in the topic text would be better ones.

Quote:
For instance, I gave a John McCain thread a "John McCain" tag. It already had five tags, one of which was "mcshitcain" (a tag that the tagger must have subsequently deleted). Despite being more relevant than "mcshitcain," my tag didn't take its place; instead, it didn't make the top five and was hidden from general view.


I don't think the tag was deleted (just because there's not that much tag deletion going on), I think what happened was exactly that it was replaced by better tags and pushed from view.

Quote:
But, as I said, I don't see how a tag gets "promoted" unless other people, in effect, "vote" for it by giving the thread the same tag. I've done that, but I wonder if anyone else is doing that.


That's pretty much how it works. The software shouldn't try to determine that "idiot" is an inappropriate tag, the people should. The software will try to help steer it that way but it doesn't really need to do much more than curb the intentional misuse, the rest sorts itself out.

Other people are, in fact, doing it. But until very recently there was a bug in the way the aggregation worked that made it not work that well. When we took down the site on Friday that was updated to work a lot better. A couple of us are working together to build out the tags, if you find bad tags, post them on this thread and we'll fix them.

Quote:
Now if there was some sort of program that measures the relevance of tags, so that the five most pertinent tags are listed first, then I'd agree: we can expect that the good tags will drive out the bad ones. I just don't see anything like that happening right now.


You might not see it, but it's certainly happening. Out of over 6000 tags you found a couple of examples that were mostly fixed by one person tagging them with more relevant tags. If you had just tagged them 5 good tags you would likely have fixed most of them yourself and if 2 people do so they are gone.

Give it a try and see what happens, use at least 5 relevant tags (using more will make it more likely that it will work) when you see this and they'll push the other tags off in many cases, and when another person does the same it will push them off in virtually all cases.

That being said, there are still a lot of technical things we'll do to improve on this, but the fundamental way it works is still people-driven just like language is. So while you may think "children" is better than "kids" if enough people think otherwise then "kids" is a more useful tag than "children" and technology needs to be an aid for the very social way this really works. Determining context solely through technology isn't as good as a human can do, and as long as enough humans are using it usefully they will outweigh the input of the ones not using it usefully. The technology just needs to provide sufficient motivation to so do (and it doesn't yet) and the tools to prevent intentional abuse from being counted (it's partway there now).
0 Replies
 
Robert Gentel
 
  2  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 12:24 pm
@DrewDad,
DrewDad wrote:
You will now find this thread at the top of the "whining" tag....


It's not that easy anymore and I don't see it anywhere on that list. ;-)

Edit: I see that you already figured that out and edited.
0 Replies
 
jespah
 
  2  
Reply Mon 8 Sep, 2008 04:40 pm
I think that tags should be as germane to the topic as possible but that means not only what are perhaps more highbrow-type words (film vs. movies; children vs. kids) but also the vernacular. After all, lots of different people will be looking for something, and their thought processes cannot always be predicted. I hardly think anyone looking for kids is looking for goats (except a friend of mine, who owns a couple). Plus if they see topics that are also tagged with children, they'll go in one direction, or if they see the tag goats they'll go in another. I'm sure most people are smart enough to figure all of that out.

I also feel that one thing to keep in mind is that this is not really a traditional index that goes from general to specific. It goes in the other direction, plus it goes sideways, e. g. the person who types in kids, looking for children, but finding goats, might be intrigued and look at goats topics for a while (get your mind out of the gutter, Gustav Ratsenhofer). Lots of different tags, so long as they apply to the topic in question, can really bring on serendipitous moments.
0 Replies
 
 

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