Value of Tagging Things (part 1)
Every day our minds make constant associations between tasks and items and how we personally relate and shuffle them off into the large organizational box that is our brain. There can sometimes be no rhyme or reason to the connections, just a split second after thought about how we relate to the content being presented. Things that my friends say, get filed under friendship. Good books or music get filed into favorites. Even my daily work tasks get broken down into various short term associations called "priority list". Whereas many productivity books and college classes have us structure reports and research into hierarchical formats, our minds would rather make our own self identifiable connections based on the levels of what it deems valuable or important at each given moment. Our minds work like aggregators of content. And this concept of contextual sorting has gotten very popular online. It's called tagging and its the closest thing to representing how our brains create the bonded neural pathways on a computer and online.
This concept hit home for me the other day, while I was visiting and updating my 43Things list . I noticed that the site started allowing tags for each goal I listed on the page and thought that I should take advantage of the new feature. As I started marking each item, deciphering the context of how my brain wanted to relate to the information, the light-bulb turned on in my head. I wasn't just labeling and categorizing each goal, I was also defining what set of values were most important to me at that moment. For example, I have a goal on my list called, "Learn Japanese." Therefore I make a note in a field that this relates to languagestudies. Later on, down the list, I have another item called "Learn Latin." Seeing that this has similar features to my "learn Japanese" item, i reuse languagestudies and now have 2 items with this tag, instead of one. Making this field seem more important than the last. After associating everything on that list with some word(s) that my brain deemed worthy, I realized that tagging was much more than a system of categorization. Tagging things also helped me get a clearer picture of what interests I currently had and how important to my mind and my well being was. Of course, I also thought, what great material for an article, so here I am, talking about how tagging can be an important part of your productivity toolbox.
Tags online... seem to be all the rage these days. Many sites are now incorporating the idea of tagging your thoughts, lists, items, goals into ways that you and your social circle can connect deeper with the information. I personally love the idea of tagging things how I see it. It's fun, easy to do and adds a lot of value to how I label what is important in my life.
What is a tag?
A tag is like a keyword. Tags help you sort things by groups to which you assign meaning to. You can assign multiple tags to a single item so it becomes meaningful in different groups. While the concept of categorization and tagging is not new, it's a recent addition to the online world. For example, if you go to Flickr, a popular online social image gallery, you can label one simple picture with various labels. Say you upload an image of your family on the beach during summer break. You could choose to add the following tags of: summer, friends, 2006, beach, vacation. Then, when you or others add more images to your galleries with beach scenes and tag it with "beach" all the images will have some sort of connection to one another, even though the owners of the images do not know each other.
Tagging allows us to organize ideas, links, items on a list, or snippets of saved text in a free flowing way that's more natural. First you create your content and then, you give it a tag or two that means something specific to you. For example, let's say I write a blog post on my favorite music group. I write the post, filling it with all the juicy details about a concert and then tag the post with the words, favorite music group. This creates a relationship between the post and the tag, so that the next time I write more about this group, I can see just how many posts I have with them in it. And the more things I associate into that tag, sometimes the larger and more bold that tag gets. The bolder and bigger a tag is, the more popular it is. This feature of formatting tags is very useful and is best known in the popular web service del.icio.us.
Del.icio.us is a online bookmarking center that allows you to keep your bookmarks in one central place and share them with others. The more you tag links you find interesting with the same bookmarks, the bigger and bolder the tag labels get. Importance is given to the tags that hold the most links. This is also known as tag clouds. Some of my popular tags include: writing, productivity, art, blogs, and tech. These simple words carry a lot of meaning for me and are the means in which I sort content into manageable boxes.
What they give us?
By now I hope you're asking the question: why bother? So what, I've been tagging things and placing information into categories since I was a kid. What will tagging teach me that I already don't know? Well, my answer is... surprisingly, a lot. I know that when I actually stepped back and looked at how my tags displayed on a computer screen as growing LARGER or BOLDER or SMALLER in tag clouds, I realized that the ability to tag information did two things for me:
Tags make searching and sorting easy.
Tagging does more than compartmentalize your ideas into categories, it also helps you search and sort things quickly. They become keywords to read and explore content put online through meaningful word associations. I have a lot of websites I enjoy reading daily. Sometimes these websites update more than 10 times a day. So I use Google reader to give me one place to read all the various articles. Using Google's tag system I can break down each type of site into tags that make sense to me. Then I can choose whether or not to read a site based on when the tags light up telling me I have new snippets to read. Occasionally, I need to search back on these sites to recall a particular post. In these cases, I can use my tags to quickly find and locate bits of information that I wouldn't have using traditional search methods. Tagging allows me to sort everything and anything and then retrieve those items in a matter of seconds. I'm also able to find and recall sites faster than I would have if I used my browser's bookmark, also thanks to the use of tags.
Tags give us a clearer picture of our interests at each moment of time.
Tagging shows patterns: patterns of importance. When used over a long period of time, your tags can show you just how important each category is to you and your life at that given moment. As you use tags, the patterns ebb and flow. As I stated before, it was the tags on my 43Things site that lead me to this conclusion. I saw that I was constantly using some tags more and others less. But it was the things I didn't tag or used less, that I seem to choose to spend more of my time doing. The more tags I assigned to tarot, the more in focus it became. The tags grew larger and larger and I could easily see that the areas of art, writing, and tarot studies clearly were more important than the tags labeled with books and health and home. That's not to say that I don't value my health or home, they're just not what is numerically important. Likewise, in a few months, as I add more to this list, the pattern in my tags will change. I may add more writing items, or more spiritual items. And as the patten changes I can then use this information to help balance my life. I can restructure my free time around the things that I think are more important while giving the items that I do that are not tagged, less time and energy.
Don't underestimate the power of making a personal connection to information by giving it a tag. Tags can do more to help us be productive by showing us subconsciously what we think are the important bits of information. So the next time you look at your del.icio.us account or post another image on flickr, look at your tags and see how they are organized. If you're using 43Things, how many items appear in each tag category? What does this say to you about what things you give importance to? For me, it shows me where I should give more of my attention, time and energy to. It helps me sort out the things that I may not have felt were important but because I tag things subconsciously more often, it means my mind is really telling me that I should work on these things and not dump energy into the things I don't have tagged. It may help you to understand just how much time you should spend playing games, when you should be making art instead. Next week I'll give you some tips on how to effectively use tags, so stay tuned for more.