Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Categories Are Dead, Long Live the Tag!
Posted by Sam at 7:46 PM | tags: , ,

One of, if not the, biggest frustration for any hardcore Blogger user, is Blogger's refusal to offer categories within an otherwise kick-ass and criticism-free blogging service. (How's that for a summary, intro, sentence thingy?)

Categories, when deployed appropriately, are a very slick addition to any blogger's arsenal. In a nutshell, they allow a singular blog to house entries ranging in a variety of topics. The blog, of course, will contain a main page which acts as a dumping ground for all of the author's posts. Maybe "dumping ground" isn't the most accurate language to use here. The main page, more precisely, acts as an unfiltered stream of all the author's posts, aggregated into one source. The author can then assign a category to each post and, in addition to being featured on the main page, the entry will be found on that category's page. The blogging service is intelligent enough to handle the main stream as well as multiple categories comprised of posts found therein. Neato!

Let's take a look at sam bot dot com. Here, I post about a wide variety of immensely rich and infinitely fascinating subject matter. Yes, infinitely fascinating. In any given month, I can be found to write about Opeth, coffee, Apple, coffee, technology, and coffee. Clearly, you as a devoted reader, are infinitely fascinated in everything that I write... but, for the sake of argument, let's say that you are simply interested in enjoying my thoughts about Apple Computers. Well, dear reader, you're in luck. It just so happens that in this imaginary scenario, I have established a category for all of my posts where the subject matter falls within the realm of Apple Computers. You can now ignore everything else that I post about and simply focus on Apple by reading only that category. And, if I'm a sophisticated blogger, which I am, I would have established an RSS feed just for that category... 'cause I'm just that kind of guy.

Some popular blogging services that offer a categories option are Wordpress, Movabletype, Typepad... Note the glaring omission of Blogger amongst that list. Grrr... Frustrating.

What's a devoted Blogger user to do? Well, this is where tags come in. Yet, this isn't simply the entrance of tags as an alternative to categories. No, it's more of an argument as to why tags are better suited for this particular application (quite possibly yours as well) and, maybe to a lesser but more dramatic degree, why tags are the wave of the future and the current state of excitement amongst information organizationophiles! (So I made up the word "organizationophile." It's not the first time, nor will it be the last.)

So, what are tags, why are they useful, and how do I use 'em? Slow down there, champ! Let's take this one step at a time.

Essentially, tags are one word labels designated by a human (this is important... more on this later) to describe an object. Imagine this all-too-comfy chair that I'm sitting in right now. If I were to apply tags to it, they might be: furniture, leather, comfy. It's up to me, really. You might sit in the same chair and tag it with: chair, brown, ugly. That's your prerogative.

What makes tags tremendously useful is their inherent organizational functionality. I can tag one post with as many tags as I deem relevant. Later on, when I (or a reader) would like to see what I've written concerning a certain topic, they need only click that tag, and voila! Up comes a comprehensive list of every post that I've tagged with that topic. What's more, is that I can cross-reference those bad boys! Yessiree! I can see what posts I have written containing any combination of tags. That's power. I'd like to see your wack-ass categories do that!

Tags are more than an organizationophile's dream come true. They are a rock solid connection to the rest of the blogosphere and yes, the internet as well. With services like del.icio.us (social, taggable, bookmarking... patience, more info to follow), your tags combine with the 30 thousand (as of December 3, 2004) other del.icio.us users out there to generate a huge cloud of tags. So, if this chair that I'm sitting in was a webpage, and I truly did tag it with furniture, leather, and comfy, I could then click the tag comfy and I would enjoy a barrage of links to other objects (in this case webpages) that del.icio.us users have also tagged as comfy. Cross reference a few tags and, theoretically, I should be left with a comprehensive listing of user tagged webpages that are completely relevant to my query.

Let's jump back for a moment. Remember our frustration with Blogger and their refusal to include categories within their service? Well, this whole tag thing solves provides a viable, and in many ways, more appropriate solution to the lack of categories provided by Blogger. This post, tagged with blogging, technology, and sambot, is now linked (via del.icio.us) to every other post that I have written tagged with any of those tags! So, clicking on blogging brings up all of my posts concerning blogging. Add technology to that query, and you'll find all of the posts that I have tagged with both blogging and technology. But wait, there's more! Remove from that query, the stipulation that all tags must have been entered by me, and you'll get every webpage that has ever been tagged by any del.icio.us user with the tags blogging and technology. My posts will be within that vast list. I am now a functioning part of what the web considers blogging and technology. I'm connected. I am a recognized, categorized, and active component of this amorphous information container known as the web. That's immense. That's raw. That's unfiltered and unrestrained super mega-awesomeness!

As a practical example of a tag integrated blog, please consider sam bot dot com. Notice that in the upper right corner of every page, there can be found a list of tags that I am apt to apply to any given post. Of course, I can apply as many and whatever tags that I want. However, those tags represent the most frequently reoccurring topics. That list may grow, and hopefully it will. (One thing to note at this point: I installed the tag feature on this blog just about a week ago. I did go back and tag the last few posts. Obviously, all future posts will be tagged. Past posts... well, maybe I'll tag some of the more noteworthy entries. We'll see...)

When you click a tag, you are automagically transported to the del.icio.us page that houses all of my posts (along with any other items) sporting that tag. From there, you can click a link from the list and zap back to sambot and enjoy the post you clicked on! However, that's not all you can do. When visiting a specific tag's del.icio.us page, you can choose to subscribe to that tag's RSS feed... just like those elitist, rat bastards... er... what I mean is, those swell bloggers who employ categories within their blogs. Um... moving on.

There are a fistful of ways to start tagging your blog. As stated, sam bot dot com is using del.icio.us... it's simple, clean, widely-used, and free (another similar option might be to use Technorati... not what I am looking for, but good luck to you!). I am using a bookmarklet (which can be found here) that automatically inserts the necessary code into my blogger entry as I'm posting. After I post, I simply tag my post's page with the appropriate tags in del.icio.us. That's all there is to it. Well, that's all there is to my half-assed version anyway. Hey, it gets the job done.

Clearly, I am a proponent of the tag system. However, the most intriguing, and quite possibly the most backwards bit about the tag revolution, is the necessary level of human involvement found therein. In an online culture such as this, which we exuberantly inhabit, the human touch is oft disregarded as an antiquated ideal... especially concerning new technologies. Conversely, tagging's success is wholly dependent on that level of human involvement. Back to the chair example: If a computer were to attempt to tag this chair, it might be able to hit "furniture" and "leather." But what about "comfy?" No way. A computer has no concept of comfort. It is this necessary human ingredient that enables tags to break the boundaries of the technology of which it is so highly integrated. The potential power of tags as an organizational method is fully dependent on this human component.

Tagging. It's the wave of the future. Ride that wave, baby! Ride it all the way to shore! Or something... I don't know. I've never surfed a day in my life.

Would you like to know more?
del.icio.us - Learn more about del.icio.us' awesomeness
flickr - taggable, online photo management and sharing application
FreshBlog - 3 ways to use del.icio.us for categories in blogger
beelerspace - Us.ef.ul, A beginner's guide to The Next Big Thing
Quick Online Tips - Absolutely Del.icio.us - Complete Tool Collection
Lorelle on WordPress - Categories versus Tags - What's the Difference and Which One?
Wikepedia - Learn about tags (see also: taxonomy)

Comments: 11 | Post a Comment | Permalink

Great explanation and good suggestions on tools. I now use a customized bookmarklet that creates tags that generate search results on each of my posts. I click the bookmarklet, type in the tags, and then paste the tag list into my post before I save it.

The thing that bugged me about del.icio.us and Technorati is that the tags sent users to their site, whether or not it was to see my posts. I wanted them to stay on my site and still have the value of the tags.

WordPress uses index.php?s=X as part of the URL for generating search results. So all I had to do was add the tag information to the link: index.php?s=wordpress. To add two or more words to the search, to help narrow the results for two word or phrase subjects, it looks like this: index.php?s=website+development.

I don't know if you can do this trick with blogger, but it is awesome to still use the power of tags while keeping visitors on your site.

Keep up the great work!

Comment By Lorelle on November 09, 2005 11:18 PM

For Blogger users: You can certainly use the power of the tag and keep the visitors on your site, using the javascripts developed by Marc Morales and Pappmaskin. These will use tags for categories, but display the results inside special posts on your blog. Very cool.

Great post, btw!!

Comment By John on November 10, 2005 9:01 AM

Found you via freshblog. Great explanation.

One quibble:

"super mega-awesomeness" -- shouldn't super and mega be hypehnated too? :-)

Comment By Jim on November 10, 2005 9:22 AM

god you are a fucking nerd.

Comment By Dr. Kennedy on November 10, 2005 10:03 AM

I've probably abused the C word now, but a permalink is a permalink, so I guess it stays wrongish. :-)

Another way of setting up a tagging system atop Del.icio.us for Blogger was just scratched together the past few hours in my own little blogniverse, sporting a mostly technical set of tags so far.

I'll look up the C and T words in a dictionary any day now.

Comment By Johan Sundström on November 10, 2005 12:20 PM

Nice job, excellent explanation for what it is you are trying to do...it loses a little bit when you don't have your hand gestures present for illustration but you did a good job getting around that fact.

My one and only complaint about the taggin method you are employing is purely a question of aesthetics. Sambot.com is such a visually appealing site that it seems tragic that you have to dump my conciousness into the del.icio.us interface...no matter how short the stay.

But I am sure that you noticed that and you are most likely trying to find some kind of work-around.

Comment By TheDarkLordDerfla on November 10, 2005 12:43 PM

I must agree with His Lordship above - this is such a marvellous aesthetic that even a brief foray to del.icio.us is, well, a bit glaring.

To that end, some sort of hack is needed to keep readers on your page ... some sort of hack that prompts them to use your tags to navigate ... some sort of hack that lets your tagspace interact with the tagspace of your inbound and outbound links ...

To that end, you might be interested in some experiments I'm running with John over Freshblog (with help from Johan at ecmanaut) on "tag passing". (Both of whom have already commented on this article.)

This means that readers can select a tag (or category) on your blog and see the titles of posts with that tag displayed in your sidebar - it fetches them from del.icio.us so your readers don't have to go.

For a demo, check out:

* Vent (Culture) (nested flat lists)

* AFL Player Spectator (Drugs) (drop-down and select box)

Now "tag-passing" means your readers can pass that selected tag from one blog to the next!

So if I select "blogging" on your blog and then click on a link to John's blog, it will "pre-select" the tag "blogging" on his page too.

How would this work on your page?
Click here (wait for reload) then visit Freshblog and you'll see the "blogging" post titles automagically unfold in the sidebar.

There's also other hackery involving grabbing tags out of inbound searches, archive counts etc.

Check out the review and write up - and please share your thoughts with us.

Comment By Greg on November 23, 2005 11:45 PM

The above-mentioned hack has morphed into FreshTags.

Read more at Freshblog.

Comment By Greg on January 22, 2006 6:08 PM

Maybe you want to checkout out my take on categories.

Comment By Amit on February 13, 2006 1:15 AM

Excellent, love it!
» » »

Comment By Anonymous on August 29, 2006 5:28 AM

Hello. Look at SocialPoster.com - this will be interesting to you, it is a service that lets you post a web page to numerous social bookmarking sites.

And Socialogs - new social service

Comment By Dan Griffin on May 01, 2007 12:06 AM

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Sam is an amazing and humble guy. Once, he rushed into a burning building, up six flights of stairs to save a kitten from certain death. He speaks eight languages, has mastered three varieties of martial arts, is a wine expert, and is a pulitzer prize winning author. Sam is an international heart-throb who prefers a quiet evening at home knitting afghans for the homeless, to the go-go, glitz and glamor of the party scene. I think the day he won the silver medal for ballroom dancing at the 98 olympics was the happiest of his life. Pretty impressive for a guy who never finished the 8th grade. - Carrie, 04
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