Do you remember when you were a kid and had to use a physical card catalog to find books? (And if you do, do you ever miss them, or is that just me?) There were a number of ways to find your book: You could look up the author. You could look up the title. You could even go to the card catalog with just a subject in mind, and come away with a number of book suggestions. With no bias, because card catalogs were funny like that. The main catch was that you had to know at least one of those pieces of information, in its entirety, to make it work (although there was usually a well versed librarian lurking nearby, ready to help you try to fill in whatever mental gap you had).
Tagging is reminiscent of that card catalog, but on a much larger and deeper scale. A tag holds one piece of an artifact’s metadata, literally data about the data. For any given collection, be the member items art, tools, books, or articles, a set of tags defines aspects of metadata, making the collection sortable and searchable. There may be tags for years and timeframes, or authors, or subjects, or places of origin. Really, the possibilities are endless, and specific to the collection being tagged.
Employing a tagging scheme benefits not only those organizing the collection, but it also benefits those who use the collection who weren’t part of the group that assigned the scheme. Tagging has become so ubiquitous on sites like blogs and shopping sites that we’re all pretty used to using tags as both a sorting mechanism and as a means of navigating websites. If one page doesn’t have what we want, we know we can find another page with the same tag and have a better-than-average chance of finding what we really want. If the tag isn’t working for us, we’ll find another tag similar to what we’re looking for and work our way through it.
Some tagging systems are fairly clever and use more structured methods, such as hierarchical or faceted structures, to allow those using the system to be able to drill down within a larger tag until they find the smaller tag that focuses on exactly what they’re looking for. Of course, this one can be a nightmare for those creating the organization to begin with, because sometimes what one group considers an umbrella tag is nothing but an aspect to another. (Probably because I’ve been blogging for so long, I’m a fan of categories as those umbrella tags and then allowing my faceted tags to reach across categories. It works for my own system.)
Those who use most of the social media tools have become familiar with a type of tagging known as hashtagging. This is where a hashtag (#) is placed in front of the tag. Hahtags are probably the most diverse of the tags, because they not only provide a way for users to find related information, but they can help people engaged in conversations be able to follow more of the conversation in a central location. Either way, they create an easily linked to archive so others who might be interested in that topic, conversation, or meme will be able to come back later and read through the conversations.
Whatever your reason for tagging, think of it like that old card catalog that helped you survive school. What would someone be looking for when your article would be useful? Why would they want it? Who would want it? Then tag (or hashtag) accordingly.