Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tags and the Infinite Universe of Information

One tool for turning the infinite universe of information into knowledge is the tag. Unfortunately, few students and teachers - or few people for that matter - know what a tag is or why it might be useful for easily making sense of overwhelming amounts of information. It turns out that tags and the act of tagging (no, not the urban practice of spray painting graffiti in public places... well it's a little like that) are also difficult to explain.

In fact, when I use the new googlepedia extension in Firefox to search both Google and the Wikipedia at once, I discover a general lack of clarity on the subject... at least at the time this post was written.

The Wikipedia article on Tags is, well, tagged for not meeting quality standards... the introduction is too long. How is one to explain the concept of tags succinctly when the Wikipedia article, which has been edited over 500 times, doesn't seem up to the task?

The top Google results appear little better at first glance. The excerpt shown from the top site, Technorati (which tracks updates to millions of blogs), seems to presume the reader already knows what a tag is: "Here you'll find the top tags, sized according to popularity. We're currently tracking 11.1 million tags." Whoa. That sounds overwhelming, not helpful, and it doesn't seem to help explain what a tag is.

However, if we click through to Technorati's Tag Page we actually find that "Tags are like labels that people use to categorize their blog posts." If we click through to the next result in Google, Flickr (a photo sharing service), we learn that "You can give your photos a 'tag', which is like a keyword or category label. Tags help you find photos which have something in common. You can assign as many tags as you wish to each photo."

So, tags are like keywords? Yes. By assigning a tag to a blog post, a photo, or any other piece of information, you can make it easier for others to search for and find that information when they need it. But tags generally have an important additional feature... tags are clickable. By clicking on a particular tag, you can find all blog posts or pictures (or whatever type of information you are searching for) that are associated with that tag. For instance if you click on the flower tag at Flickr, you'll see any picture that has been tagged with "flower."

At the next Google result, (a social bookmarking site... for sharing bookmarks or favorites online), we learn about a tag cloud, or "a list of tags where size reflects popularity." It turns out there is a tag cloud right here on the ITM... see it on the right-hand side of the site... under the video images? (This tag cloud is automatically generated by ZoomClouds.) Right now the most popular tag on this blog (by far) is "students," followed closely by "digital." You can tell at a glance that these are two important words or topics here at the Infinite Thinking Machine without having to skim all of the blog posts and shows. And, if you were only interested in posts about a certain topic, say... video, you could click on the video tag and see only those posts that discuss video. This saves time and helps you make sense of the mass of information here at the ITM, doesn't it?

So, there are a few ways tags might play a role in the way you and your students interact with information online. First, whenever you post anything on a blog, photo sharing site, social bookmarking site, or other service that supports tags... take the time to tag whatever you are posting. This will help you (and others) find it again later by either searching for the tag or clicking on the tag in a tag cloud. Second, of course, you can locate things that others have posted or shared by searching for or clicking on a tag. Finally, you can also use a tag cloud to learn at a glance what a given web site is about. These three things can save a good deal of time when searching for information and determining it's relevance to the task at hand.

Are you getting the idea at this point? Let's check your understanding, or rather, my explanation... how might you (or your students) use tags to make sense of information encountered while completing an assignment? Do you know of an example of students or teachers using tags? Share your ideas (or your questions) in the comments for this post. (The link for comments appears at the top of the post.) I look forward to reading your contributions.