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Becoming a tagging kung-fu master

You’ve heard the hype about tagging. You’ve seen people flocking to sites like Flickr and del.icio.us, where they jump head-first into a pulsing mass of disjointed tags, possibly never to be heard from again. And you’ve wondered: how exactly is tagging worthwhile again?

Any idiot can tag, but you want tags that are useful rather than a disorganized mess. This is not an unreasonable desire, and by completing three simple steps before you start tagging, you too can become a tagging kung-fu master. (Or, if you want more intellectual cred, explicate your personal taxonomy.)

Whether you are tagging in a private, public, or collaborative system, consistency is the byword when tagging. Without a consistent pattern you won’t know what tags to assign items, what tags to search for to find items, or what items you’ll likely get while browsing your tags. The following three steps will help you create a consistent pattern to follow. Even if you’ve been tagging for a while, you may find these steps helpful to refine your knowledge of your own tagging habits and practices. (Please note, however, that these steps are focused on developing a personal tagging system; to optimize your tagging for collaborative use you would need to develop your system somewhat differently.)

Step 1: Know what

Are you tagging PDFs in Yep, notes in Notae, characters in Avenir, or photos in iPhoto ‘08? Whether you’re tagging in one program or several, you need to make a list of the general types of different items that you want to tag.

Tagging many different kinds of items does not make planning a tagging system much more complicated, but because you’ll tag different kinds of items differently you definitely need to think about what you’re going to tag.

Step 2: Know when

Part of knowing your target is knowing what kind of metadata is already available to you (through, say, Spotlight or the Finder) and not duplicating that metadata in your tags. For instance, every file in Mac OS X has a date created and date modified attached to it. As a result, tagging your files with a date is typically a silly idea. Tagging Word documents “word” is also redundant; the system knows which documents are Word documents and finding all of them is only a saved search away. Before you proceed to the third step, you need to make sure you know what information about your target you already have available. You don’t have to write it down if you don’t want to; just be aware.

Although there may be some situations in which you want to tag an item with every possible tag you can think of, most of the time you will want to keep your tags succinct and well-targeted, which means avoiding redundancy. Tags may be extremely flexible but they are the least efficient kind of metadata in some ways because they have no indication what they are marking. When you search the “date modified” field, you know exactly what you’re finding. An “05-31-2007” tag, on the other hand, could be any number of things.

Step 3: Pick your attributes

This is the heart of a consistent tagging system, and can be summed up in a single question: how do you think about the item you are tagging? For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely?

Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items. Ideally, you should make this a brainstormed list that includes every attribute you can possibly think of that you might want to tag. As you make the list for your different target items, star the attributes that spring immediately to mind.

Once you have a list, go through it to weed out the attributes that are covered by the item’s non-tag metadata. Then go through it again and pick out what attributes you want to use for tagging. Try to keep it a short, specific list focused on the attributes that sprang immediately to mind. You should also add attributes that didn’t spring immediately to mind, but that you want to make a habit of tagging anyway because they will be useful.

When you have this list of attributes, you are ready to tag. You should probably put your list of attributes somewhere visible, for example a Post-It by your computer or a virtual sticky note on-screen, at least until you’ve either memorized them or developed good tagging habits.

When you’re tagging, try to consistently attach a tag for every one of the attributes that you’ve selected. The more often you can hit all of them, the easier it will be for you to find files later. Additionally, knowing what attributes you are tagging makes coming up with specific tags much easier. Rather than sitting worrying over every photograph you can quickly attach a location, person, and event (or whatever attributes you decide on). Ideally, your attributes and tags should fit into the following sentence: “This [item]’s [attribute] is [tag].” For example, “this photo’s location is New York.”

The specific tags that you use will doubtless shift over time and circumstance, but the attributes that you are tagging should remain much more stable. By defining a standardized set of attributes for each kind of item that you are tagging and only deviating when necessary (or when the way you think about a given type of item begins to change), you will be able to create a consistent tagging system that helps you find items quickly because it matches the way you think.

And more importantly, you will have taken your first steps on the road to becoming a full tagging kung-fu master. Or developing a stream-lined personal taxonomy. Whichever works for you.

shimon_s's picture

Tagging Philosophy

Thanks Ian for bringing up this topic, because many people think that tagging is just a matter of throwing whatever comes to their mind. Which of course brings their tagging system to a big mess.

The biggest frustration for the tagger would be when he 'knows' something is in his database and he can't find it (e.g. he used synonyms or didn't tag the right attributes).

I would like to refer to this issue more deeply and give a real world example - 'arranging your scanned documents using a tagging system'.

First let me introduce myself - my name is Shimon Sofer and I am a co founder of '42Tags' - a software for scanning and tagging documents (Windows only for now).

I would like to show how your ideas are implemented in the field of 'scanned document tagging' using '42Tags', and would like to introduce another idea - 'Major/Minor tags'.

In our application we distinguish between two types of tags. The first type - the 'Major tag' and the second type - the 'Minor tag'.

'Major tags' - should be relatively general and you should have the ability to easily control them,
because there shouldn't be much of them (if you are a home/small office user, 42 will be enough...:) ).

'Minor tags' - are those that are not part of the first group.

I would like to demonstrate the idea:

Let's say that you have a few medical documents which deal with 'a blood test for your daughter Jenny, which
was done to verify if she's got pneumonia. The doctor was John Smith".

In this case I suggest that the 'Major tags' will be "Medical" and "Jenny" and the minor tags will be "blood test", "pneumonia", "John Smith".

The division to attributes you talked about is more relevant to 'Major tags' than 'Minor tags'.

How does a 'Major tag' and a 'Minor tag' practically differ?

In 42Tags we added the ability to add a pushable button for every major tag.

Actually there is only one difference between a 'Major tag' and a 'Minor tag' - 'Major tags' have a shortcut button in a specified tag panel.

Regarding the separation to attributes we offer the 'Tag sections' in which the user should add 'Major tags' of the same attributes.

For example - 'Person section' - Each tag is a name of persons
'Places section' - Each tag is a name of place
'Paper type section' - e.g. Contract, Fax, Invoice, etc...

Anyone can define his own attributes for every section.

If the user would like to reach a 'Minor Tag' - he can just start typing, and auto-completion will help him through it.

Another issue not throughly discussed is the dynamic nature of tags.

After tagging 10-100 items you notice that you need to change your tagging scheme.

For example - you live in Paris and all the papers relevant for your apartment are tagged with
'Paris', and 'Apartment'. After a year you leave to another apartment - in Paris!

You may want to distinguish between the collections.

What we offer is making a search on 'Paris' and 'Apartment', and then using a multiple "Tag/Untag" feature in order for example to add "Rue Barute" to the old material.

Maybe I wrote too much, but I really enjoyed reading your post ;-)

Shimon Sofer




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