Melvil Dewey had it easy. In 1876, when he created his famous system of ordering information, the Dewey Decimal Classification System, there weren't Web sites, video clips or blogs. Today's digital world--where millions of items are generated on an hourly basis, and even fantastic search engines can't find all the good stuff--is tougher to organize than a herd of Democrats. But Internet pundits now claim a solution: let the people do the categorizing. Using a practice called tagging, we can collectively label everything from great literature to pictures of your puppy. Bye-bye, Dewey. Hello, do-it-yourself.
As the name implies, tagging something means putting a virtual label on it. (Software lets you do this by simply typing a word; from then on, it's linked to the content.) What the tag says is totally up to you. The important thing is that later you--and others--can find things simply by the tag name. Think of tagging as the opposite of search. By leaving linguistic bread crumbs behind on your wanderings through cyberspace, you can easily relocate the sights (and sites) you saw along the way.
But "keeping found things found"--as Clay Shirky, a teacher at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, explains--is only the first benefit of a grass-roots tagging system. Whereas the old, Dewey-style taxonomies involved graybeards figuring out in advance how things should be categorized, tagging is done on the fly, adapting to the content itself. What's more, because all this is digital, there's no limit to the number of tags people can slap on an item. In a library you can put "Frederick the Great" in the history or the biography section, but you'd need a second copy to put it in both. With digital tags you could use both, and more: military,Prussia, really great reads.
The big question about tagging is whether the lack of rules will lead to anarchy. Early results from the Web sites that exploit tagging show quite the opposite: order seems to emerge from the chaos of freestyle labeling. On a site called del.icio.us, participants put tags on their favorite Web sites, making it not only easy to find information on specific topics, but allowing visitors to view the most popular sites of the whole community. The photo-sharing site Flickr, which classifies images by user-selected labels, has generated a sometimes quirky but totally coherent form of organization, simply because people can check out which tag words get the best responses from the community, and do their own tagging accordingly. "Think of the process as similar to that of language, which is also a self-organized process," says author and tagging proponent David Weinberger. That process is also at work on a Web site called 43 Things, where people express their goals, tag them and comment and commiserate on the goals of others. It turns out that a lot of people on the site read a book called "Getting Things Done." When someone came up with the idea of making a tag called "GTD," others recognized that the abbreviation was an ideal label, and thereafter anyone who posted a goal inspired by that book stuck a GTD tag on it. That's a classic example of how the group effort of tagging can discover its own kind of compelling logic. Tagging enthusiasts call such systems "folksonomies."
Incidentally, 43 Things is funded by Amazon.com. The company won't comment on whether it's considering a customer-generated tagging system to organize its millions of items. But some think it inevitable that not only Amazon but other Net giants--eBay, iTunes and even Google and Yahoo--will let users do the organizing. "Traditionalists may go crazy," says Weinberger, "but the Internet makes them crazy anyway." Let's tag this scheme "promising."