July 24, 2005

Tagging/Meta Voyeurism

There are taggers and then there are tag voyeurs. There are those that make the tags and use them to navigate the tagged information and then there are those that are interested mainly in tags themselves as an end. The tag itself becomes the relevant information, rather then the original tagged data. This takes us to the realm of the professional voyeur, the sociologists and market researchers, anthropologists and pundits, psychologists and intelligence officers.

In my previous post on tagging I focused on the taggers and the tag users. This post is about the tag watchers. They too are tag users, albeit in a slightly less seemly (but perhaps far more interesting) manner. And in this excellent post by Tom Coates its quite clear that tagging is becoming useful to these voyeurs. Rather then using tags to add meaning to existing information, the tags themselves become the information, information ideally suited for discreetly watching and analyzing at a distance.

Tagging is great for the voyeurs because it lowers the threshold for the generation of discrete information. Discrete information is different from just plain information in how neatly bounded and transportable it is. The information in say an apple tree is not discrete at all. There is a massive amount of data, on how to make more apples, on the state of the soil, on the winds in the area, the length of the winters, etc. But its exceedingly difficult to unlock this info and share it. In contrast a word on a web page is quite discrete, it can be copied, added to a database, compared to other words, its letters counted and quantified, its uses watched and tracked by machines.

Words are tricky though because when strung together as sentences and paragraphs they get less and less discrete, their potential meanings multiply and become ambiguous. Tagging (and metadata in general) is wonderful for fans of discrete information because they collapse large chunks of text back into far more discrete units. Its much simpler to track the "ajax" tag then to wade though a million posts on javascript and xml trying to find a trend. That doesn't necessarily make the tag tracking more accurate of course, but it sure saves time and effort.

Ajax is a telling example, its the hottest and most exciting thing in web development at the moment, but its also a very clear marker of the stratification of the internet. Making an Ajax powered site is a professional only job. Sure an amateur or two will make one or two, but compared to wide open playing field of html or even Flash, there is no contest. Its been a long time coming, and Ajax is only the latest of many steps, but to have a legitimate web presence now almost always requires some sort of professional help. You can use Blogger, Flickr and their ilk on the low end, or you can have a professional build you something, but successful hand built by amateur sites are getting pretty rare.

Tag voyeurism points to a much scarier potential striation of the internet, a striation between those that can watch the information and those that create it without knowing. This has existed for a long time in one area, those that run the servers can see far more then those that just use them. Google is similar, it provides information to its users, but it extracts far more then it gives out. If tags really take off its just another striation, another divide in which one side gains more than the other, another asymmetrical exchange of information.

Posted by Abe at July 24, 2005 11:06 PM


While I'm not sure about the asymetrical distribution of information occurring because of tagging (isn't it just a different kind of information) your point on striation did ring true with me. Not so much because some people are getting less information or more but because the value of unique terms is increasing. Already an easy way to get something on Google is to coin a term. Have that term tagged, get people talking about it on multiple blogs and you have yourself a little secret portion of the internet. I feel like Ajax is a great example of this. I named my own blog banapana for precisely that reason. It's a nonsense word and one therefore that is easy to track on sites like del.icio.us, technorati and google. Once the fracturing of vocabulary in such a fashion becomes common sense is it possible that we could end up with a glut of nonsense terms?

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