Of the many tags that have been attributed to my profile on IBM Connections, our internal collaboration platform, one of my favourites is “tag-o-phile”.
We all structure information differently. We think differently. And the way we think and structure information may very well depend on the moment and the context. Just look at these three examples from a training session in Japan where we asked teams to create a logical structure of 15 foodstuffs.
I’d say “they all are, in their own way. But the top two teams would have a hard time in the kitchen of the bottom team.”
I have written more about this in a blog post a few years back, Folders is where knowledge goes to hide, but I’ll focus here on a specific aspect of tags which often is overlooked – tags can be applied to anything.
Tags can be applied to anything. Only files can be put in folders.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it brings big benefits to users who have a good social intranet (or Enterprise Social Network, ESN, if you prefer). Searching for the tag “collaboration” will produce all kinds of content and people that have been assigned that tag; People, Files, Blogs, Forum discussions, Wikis, Pictures, Ideas, Communities. Instead of just finding either files in folders or people in the corporate directory, you find all of the above and can filter either by type of content or on people or you can refine your search with additional tags, irrespective of type of content. This way you get a much fuller picture of the breadth of content and knowledge available on any tagged topic.
But, for tags and tagging to reach the full potential, there are a few conditions:
- Tagging has to be transparent – If tags are not visible to others than the people who assigned them in the first place, they are of little value
- Tagging has to be flexible – To be useful, taxonomies should be used to establish a minimum level of tagging, not to control which tags may be used. Taxonomies can never capture the richness of characteristics and contexts relevant to all users and they hardly ever keep up with development and changing priorities
- Tagging has to be widespread – As with so many other aspects of collaboration, it’s a matter of the more, the merrier. The more people tag, the more different tags will be used, giving a wider view on topics and people. But also, the more people tag, the more will re-use the same tag for content or people, improving the differentiation between tagged items
Does your social intranet offer proper tagging or is it just a facade?
Simply put, tags are nothing more than “Characteristics – to me – of someone or something – expressed in single or few words”. If many people agree on a characteristic of someone or something, that characteristic will show up stronger and the “someone or something” will rate higher on that characteristic than others with fewer instances of the same tag. If person A has been tagged with “collaboration” 25 times and person B only “10”, we assume that person A has more expertise or experience on the topic of collaboration. Or, possibly, a greater and more tag-happy network.
In many ways, tags applied by people can be seen as a supplement to the machine algorithms used in standard search engines. You search for a tag and then filter on additional tags to refine your search results.
Tags vs #Hashtags
So what’s the difference? #Hashtags are used within conversations (be they in text or in images), helping to identify conversations on the same topic. Often, they are part of the message, usually a status update. Tags, as discussed in this post, are “labels”, used to characterize less fluid content or profiles in an online environment. The conceptual alternative to #hashtags would be discussion threads. The conceptual alternative to tags would be folders (but which only works with uploaded files, as described above).