Skip to content

The question of tagging

February 1, 2013
I found this excellent question in Edmodo: “I need to know what does “tagging” involve, it has always been a mystery to me! Do I have to do it on Twitter? I don´t know how to tag, or find sb else´s tagged post. I´d like to comment other people´s posts but don´t know how.”

Tagging used to be a mystery to me too. It was such a mystery, along with RSS and emerging social networks, that I decided to figure it out by getting Barbara Dieu to co-author a TESL-EJ article with me.  Back in 2007 Barbara knew a lot more about these things than I did, so I learned from her as between us we produced this: 

Dieu, Barbara, & Stevens, Vance. (2007, June). Pedagogical affordances of syndication, aggregation, and mash-up of content on the web.TESL-EJ, 11(1), 1-15. Available:

There is a section there on tagging and its pedagogical implications.  I’ve just noticed that we discussed Bloglines as well.  Google Reader has since become preeminent to Bloglines, but if you’ve read the Week 3 suggested activities, then you may have noticed I suggest you set up a feed reader (I even promised a tutorial on the topic). Our article gives more information on RSS and on tagging, which we applied with great success to a project where students tagged their blog posts WritingMatrix and found each other using Technorati, which unfortunately no longer functions well for blogs with no authority (more on that at

But the section on tagging in the article above explains how tagging is a folksonomic system as opposed to a taxonomic one.  David Weinberger has produced excellent explanations of tagging, some of which you probably didn’t notice at the bottom of Week 2

Here are the links:

To hear David W describe it very well, I highly recommend you watch his opening to the debate at the supernova link above.  Weinberger uses the Dewey Decimal system as an example taxonomy, created 100 years ago with keywords that are always divided into ten things. The system has worked for 100 years but it must drive librarians nuts trying to fit modern texts and media into the resulting limited and arbitrary structures, and it is said that a book that is shelved a few decimals out of place on a library shelf is lost forever.

The internet has developed a system of folksonomy. In the last two articles above you can read what that is and what the pros and cons are.  Folksonomies are made up on the fly by people who actually use systems.  You can see the difference in a library and Amazon.  Imagine that anyone using Amazon was invited to TAG items they came across.  This means the users would say this book by David Weinberger was about RSS, Internet, folksonomies, taxonomies, etc. etc.  Imagine that done with the millions of books that Amazon peddles and with the many millions of users of the site, everyone providing whatever key words come to mind. Eventually you have a system of organization that at first blush you think is never going to work, but in fact the opposite is true.  

There is a lot written about the wisdom of crowds, the power of individuals to collectively contribute small zigsaw pieces to problems that get resolved online into brilliant tapestries. I gave a presentation at a BrazTESOL conference a few years ago on Tag Games where I produced a chart showing some differences of taxonomies and folksonomies at a glance, and also giving ideas about how you can use tags practically in your classrooms and across social networks, here:

Diigo and Delicious use this in ways addressed in Dieu and Stevens (2007).  Anyone who sees a website and wants to preserve a record of it can tag it. Unlike a taxonomy, where the categories used are predetermined, all the tags that people dream up to describe an item or give it a word that will help them recall it later, become attached to the items as metadata.  Diigo and Delicious are both sites that accumulate the tags of all the people who visit millions of sites repeatedly so that by searching on a tag, or any word, like folksonomy say, will produce the links to all the websites that anyone on the system has tagged with that word. This points up both the power, and also one of the messier sides to folksonomies.  The tag could be folksonomy or could be folksonomies (or it could be misspelled); compare: and

Tags are extremely powerful. Search on any user, say, and see all the tags that that user uses to organize their online life.  In the week 3 activities I invite you into the brain of George Siemens, for example, to see all the sites that he has browsed and on which he has bestowed the tag ‘mooc’

A taxonomy defines a tree with branches.  A folksonomy works at the level of the leaves.  If you want to find a book in the library you climb the tree and make your way out the branches and eventually you come to the book you are looking for. In one of Weinberger’s many memorable analogies, the Internet is the tree in autumn whose leaves are scattered everywhere, all over the ground, and blowing in swirling gusts of wind.  This is beyond the power of a taxonomy to address.  Fortunately on the Internet every leaf has been tagged by many users who have passed over this or that leaf already.  We have tools that can call from the pile all the leaves tagged with such and such metadata.  Through folksonomy, apparent chaos is brought to order, and that order was applied over time by the small additions of value left by users who used the power of tagging to help themselves and others remember where they left things wherever they happened to be wherever they found them on the Internet.

Google applies a tag approach to its products. The first wildly successful search engine, Yahoo, employed a team of experts to essentially organize searches by hand, but such approaches cannot scale. Google searches pretty strictly by algorithm, and any hand tweaking is allowed in such a way that those hands will be crowdsourced, not those of Google. Through tagging as one part of the algorithm, Google knows when you view one YouTube video what others you might want to see next.  

Tags in Gmail are a wonderful departure from the limitations of taxonomic filing.  When our mail came on paper, you could only put that piece of paper in one place.  We devised filing systems with drawers for banking and folders for this bank or the other and this one for taxes and that for credit cards, for mortgage, insurance, etc.  Every piece of paper could only go in one place.

Outlook and most email service providers emulate this.  You create a folder system.  You drag any item of mail to one branch on the filing system you have constructed and drop it there.  If the mail is from you bank do you file it there? Or do you put it under mortgage because that’s what the message was about?

With gmail you tag it, bank name, mortgage, tax deduction, as many tags as you want to give it. Then you “archive” it which removes it from your inbox and essentially blows it onto the pile of leaves where all your mail is now piled unsorted.  If you want it back, you search for it under any one of the tags that you can remember you gave it.  It now becomes possible to file that one message into multiple drawers at once, and get it back by opening any of those drawers.  Imagine you misplaced your glasses, so you go to any of the many places you are likely to leave your glasses, and through that place there is a means of retrieving your glasses wherever they physically are at that point.  You would rarely lose anything again.

So to get back to the questions that prompted this post, Twitter is a site that lets you #tag tweets (pronounced ‘hash tag’).  When you apply a #tag twitter will track all tweets that use that tag and feed them back to you on demand.  For example you can search on

From the latter feed I see that we just missed Dave Cormier’s talk on Rhizomatic learning but we can see the recording (I just re-tweeted it on )

I also noticed a conversation there between Sue Waters and Ryan Laslop, which I Jing-captured: 

View on »

Here Sue extols the benefits of Google Reader in helping you organize blog postings from a movement as massive as #etmooc, or as minuscule as #mmooc13.  And this brings us to Maria’s last question, how should she comment on posts?  Short answer, visit a blog connected with this course, like, where this post appears, and leave a comment on the post (here it’s called “responses” but mouse over the bubble and the words ‘leave a comment’ appear: 

View on »).

The longer answer is that you have to FIND the blogs first, but this will be the topic of my next tutorial posted here

Meanwhile you can post questions and comments on our YahooGroup, or at our Posterous blog, or on Edmodo. You can even try embedding them in your blog posts and when we get our feed readers set up and working, we should be able to find them there.


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: