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Last Updated: Monday, 26 June 2006, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
To tag or not to tag
If we don't classify and categorise data then we risk leaving chaos behind, argues Technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Spotlight
Apple's operating system includes a fast search called Spotlight

As I write this a message has just arrived in my e-mail inbox. That brings the total up to 6,559, though if it wasn't for the junk mail filter it would top seven thousand.

It's an absurd situation, especially since a year ago I would ruthlessly prune my e-mail if there were over 200 messages sitting there.

But a year ago I was using Microsoft Outlook on a Windows PC.

Now I have a PowerBook and use Apple's own mail program Mail in a fit of literalism that rarely afflicts the inventor of the iPod and the AirPort.

And as well as Mail Apple provide a program called Spotlight that indexes every file on your hard drive, including your e-mail, address book and calendars.

As a result if I want to find an e-mail from my friend Rebekah I just have to click on the white magnifying glass in a blue circle on the top right of my screen and type her name.

Corrupted

Within a second Spotlight finds all the e-mails from and to her, some photos I'd forgotten about and a load of documents that she has written.

Spotlight has corrupted me, and I'm not sure I can recover.

When I made the switch to a Mac laptop Windows search was clunky and slow, and finding e-mail messages was a pain, so I made the effort to file each one.

Bill Thompson
Without a classification system, and some sort of formal mechanism for placing content in the relevant place, we risk losing important data

I set up a rich and complicated hierarchy of folders and subfolders, with separate locations for projects, writing and personal e-mails.

Now I've lost the discipline and instead I have a dozen or so folders, none of which I keep up to date by moving messages into them.

I could switch back, but now Windows has Desktop Search which does the same as Spotlight, so I still wouldn't be under the same pressure to keep my filing up to date.

And it's clear that it was only the lack of a lazy alternative that kept me honest.

I don't have a naturally tidy disposition, but the negative consequences of not being able to find e-mails were great enough to force me to file, spending hours on train journeys deciding whether an e-mail from a friend should be filed under their name or whether it was mostly about a project we were working on and should go into the project folder.

Danger

The real danger of relying on search, especially on text-based search, which is what Spotlight and everything else does, is that it does not allow links to be made.

Flickr
Website Flickr gathers tagged photos into clusters

An e-mail from someone about a project I'm working on may not mention the project by name, and so I will never find it again, but if it had been filed in the right place then I'd spot it easily.

Without a classification system, and some sort of formal mechanism for placing content in the relevant place, we risk losing important data. We also make it impossible for co-workers or, in the longer term, historians, to have any idea what we were up to.

An information archaeologist who came across my archived Outlook folders would have a pretty good idea about my work and life just from looking at the structure, but someone faced with 6,612 - it's gone up while I was writing - e-mail messages would find it very hard going.

What's the solution? Well, although I've always been critical of the idea of the "folksonomy", defined by Wikipedia as "a collaboratively generated, open-ended labelling system that enables internet users to categorise content such as web pages, online photographs, and web links", it may be the only option left.

Instead of having a filing system or adopting a rigid classification, the folksonomy approach advocates adding descriptive words or phrases, called "tags" to each item.

Adherents

It's the way that photo-sharing sites like Flickr do it, and I certainly tag my photos.

Flickr
Flickr: The more popular the tag, the bigger the word

According to some of the adherents of the folksonomy approach, like network theorist Clay Shirky, these community-driven systems are far more powerful than any externally imposed classification mechanism, because they allow expressive vocabularies to emerge.

However this is not necessarily going to happen.

Anyone who has searched through photographs tagged "Cambridge" on Flickr will see, few people bother to distinguish Cambridge, England, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and if there's no tag then there's no way to be sure what you're looking at.

Even looking for "Cambridge but not Boston" won't help - it gets rid of 8,000 pictures but still leaves 2,919 tagged "Cambridge" and "Harvard".

But disciplined tagging could well work and it is worth exploring how to do it.

Developer Andy Beaumont has been thinking about the same question, and he has been looking at MailTags, which lets you add tags to mail messages.

He seems to think it can do the job for Mac users, and it's shareware so I can try it out first.

I doubt I'll ever go back to filing my messages by hand, but if tagging can help me impose a structure on the data that flows in and out of my laptop each day then it will help me now.

It might even make life easier for those who will look back on these early years of the twenty-first century and try to figure out just what we thought we were up to.

I'm sure that's worth spending some time on the train marking up messages.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet




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