My brother and I often play an amusing-to-us but probably-stupid-to-others game while texting each other. We each try to outdo the other with by including an insanely long hash tag in the text message. Like #thelastthingyouwanttoseeonanelevator or #facebookmomswhosekidswillhatethemoneday and many more that aren’t fit to publish in a public space like this.

These tags often exceed 100 characters, leaving little room for an actual message. Sometimes they are the message. Told you it was stupid.

In my mind, it’s a fun mockery of the abuse of hash tagging, which after being popularized on Twitter, spread to other webby social places as a way of adding context to compact bits of textual communication.

Like any other form of word salt, tags can be tasteful—or noxious. Yuvi Zalkow says it best:

Yuvi tags pe

Don’t blame Twitter, though. Tagging was around long before the internet. In fact, I think the act of tagging is a symptom of a basic human need to create the perception of order and organization. We’re wired to tag whether we need tags or not.

Tags: compulsion in sheep’s clothing

The lineage of this infectious three-letter word can be traced to the land of fjords and whale steaks. “Tag” descends from the Scandinavian tagge or tagg. Its close blood relative, “tack,” was first recorded being used to describe a “label” in 1835.

Today, tag has a number of meanings in a variety of contexts. It can be anything from a price-displaying sticker to a lock of matted sheep’s wool.

Interestingly, at, there are 21 definitions of tag as a noun, but none of them describe it in a modern, computer context. For that, we have to turn to Wikipedia:

a tag is a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file)

If you’ve spent more than ten minutes on the web in your life, you’ve encountered tags in some fashion. They’re used on blogs (like this one), social bookmarking sites, and anywhere else that a human has attempted to contextualize packets of digital information. Tags help assuage the fear they what we say will be swallowed up and forgotten in the vast expanse of an uncurated, chaotic web.

Tagging, in this fashion, predates computers. By a lot, actually. The museum industry beat the web to textual tagging by some four hundred years. Museum curators have long used identity tags (labels) as a succinct means of describing basic information about objects presented at exhibits. Things like name, title, maker, and origin.

Ross Parry, et al. note that museum labeling was probably a byproduct of two centuries-old European memes: “the culture of the emblem, and the culture of classifying,” a curatorial cocktail that’s a few parts pageantry and a few parts philosophy.

It’s fitting that the web borrowed the practice of textual tagging from its brick and mortar ancestor, the museum. The web is very much a modern museum that’s both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Digital tagging is simply an extension of a centuries-old practice. It’s a bottom-up means for curating objects—once physical, now virtual.

Tagging and content management

Google famously brought the concept of tagging to email. The most innovative aspect of Gmail labels was that messages could have more than one, thereby breaking free of the one-to-one nature of folders, a more static concept borrowed from the non-digital world.

Modern content management systems like Evernote, Yojimbo, DEVONThink, and many others also make use of tags as a means of bringing additional context to data.

Even where digital tagging isn’t explicitly allowed for, people have come up with creative ways of making it happen. For example, in Mac OS 10.4 and later you can place bits of text in a file’s Spotlight comments field. A number of utilities and scripts exist to facilitate this process—both the tagging and the searching of tags via Spotlight comments.

I tag because…

What I find most interesting about the practice of tagging is that it’s an obsession that’s increasing—ironically in a time when search is getting better and better. No matter how good technology gets at connecting us with information, we just can’t relinquish the desire to slap our own labels on things. And we love imposing our on sense of style on it.

The pageantry of emblematic classification very much lives on. I bet it will survive the so-good-they’re-scary semantic tools just around the corner, too.

I don’t like tagging as a general practice, but I still find myself doing it. I would be a hypocrite if I told you not to tag. So I won’t. More importantly, telling you not to tag would be, in a sense, a contradiction of my overarching message. It would be an attempt to force my own meaning on something that someone else will see.

But in parting, I do have some practical, albeit general, advice about tags.

Toward better tagging (or none at all)

  • Tags rarely work a priori. In other words, you need a need for tags first. Tag in arrears.
  • If you try to set tags before you truly have a need for them, you’ll end up with an unnavigable mess of the things. Maybe only 0-2 items per tag. You’ll need tags for your tags and tag hierarchies. (Oh, keep reading. That’s just the sound of my in-mouth vomiting. I’ll be fine.)
  • Human-imposed tags only work when used sparingly and in an obvious manner—much like early museum usage. Think of tags as a kind of seasoning that should be used in moderation. Highly detailed taxonomies are almost certainly biased toward the one who created them. Don’t expect others to find your tagging useful.
  • Consider that Google searches are vastly superior to navigating tag clouds. How often do you use someone else’s tag cloud to find things?
  • Before tagging an object containing text, ask: Is the “tag” already in the content of this object? Is it already in the name or body? If so, it doesn’t really need a tag. Rely on search.
  • As an alternative to tags, try creating verbose file names. For example, English 101 Term Paper on Francis Bacon Spring 2011.pages. You’ll find that object in seconds with even the most crude Spotlight search.
  • Tagging takes time. Are the returns on your time worth what you’ve invested in tagging? How many of your tags have you used in the last year?

Finally, understand that tagging is an attempt to impose control by manually filing chaos under a seemingly more memorable layer of cognition. If your tag layers invariably fade to abstraction, then it’s probably worth resisting the urge to tag.

You’re probably better off spending your time creating things, not figuring out how to file them. Let your objects fall where they may, and have faith in search.