I hate folders. I hate the typical folder structure of most operative systems. I waste time building the structure, I waste time thinking of where to store things. And when I try to find them again, I waste time again trying to remember in which folder I finally did put them and often have to resort to searching. And time is to valuable for me to waste and I guess that goes for most of you. I guess my structuring challenges are not unfamiliar to many readers too.
Thank you Google for Desktop Search!
And so far, this has only been about my own hard drive. Not in social websites.
This is why I get the chills every time someone asks for a possibility to create folder structures in collaborative environments. If a single person can’t sort out his own document storage and retrieval in a folder structure, how do they suppose that an unhierarchical, loosely knitted group of people will succeed? Rather, it would be as easy as finding stuff on someone else’s hard drive, don’t you think?
Enters tags. I love tags as much as I loathe folders.
Why I love tags? Because tags are defined by each user to fit their own needs and their own way of thinking, not the view of the few. Tags are flexible and quick to respond to new concepts and trends instead of representing old news. Finally, because tags can be used across all kinds of content (at least if you have a comprehensive collaboration ecosystem, like a good social intranet) thereby linking people with shared files with social bookmarks with blog entries with wikis with discussion forum posts with …. you get the drift. By searching on one tag, I can get a complete view of all the knowledge and expertise on that topic, irrespective of how it’s documented or who has it.
But, asks the fainthearted, aren’t you overwhelmed by masses of shared files or social bookmarks? There’s no structure! And I say: Filter by tags, my friend. And when you still have too many to choose from, filter further until you find what you look for. And if you still don’t find it through filtering, they are, unlike in folders, all visible and you can still scan them without having to open one folder after another, guessing your way down the structure.
For tags to work properly there are only a couple of prerequisites:
- A good type-ahead feature when you are tagging – presenting already existing tags – plus people who have the patience to wait the split second needed for the type-ahead suggestions to appear
- A uniform method of tagging across the collaborative system: either separated by space (multi-letter-expressions-need-to-be joined-by-hyphens-or_underscore) or comma separated
- Users who understand the benefits of tagging and therefore do it
- A decent feature for searching by tag
A couple of tagging hints:
- When thinking of which tags to use, think of which words and expressions you would use when searching for what you are tagging
- Use spelling versions, typically both American and British spelling, or else your item may only be found on one side of the Atlantic (if you’re using English, that is)
- Language? I don’t have any strong view, but if the item you’re tagging isn’t in one of the “big languages” it’s probably a waste to use tags in any other language. People who find it won’t understand it anyway. Unless, of course, you are bilingual like me and you tag for yourself.
Finally, a good collaboration environment should be equipped with powerful search features (often turbo-powered by tags) and make extensive use of suggestions and associations to inspire you and make you discover useful stuff related to people you know or items you see.