(NOTE: I published a shorter version of this article last Friday to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits group weblog. However, I suspect CONTENTIOUS readers might be interested too, so here’s the expanded version.)
There’s a lot of buzz in online circles these days about tagging and social bookmarking. Are these networking tools relevant to news organizations? I think so, precisely because they’re messy and informal…
A March 15 article by Infoworld.com VP Matt McAlister indicates some possibilities.
One day, McAlister experimented with using del.icio.us (a popular social bookmarking tool) to tag (informally categorize) articles from The Standard. To his delight, he found that doing so yielded a diverse and intriguing collection of related links from other del.icio.us users who’d bookmarked the same articles or used similar tags in their own link collections.
“I’ve really just scratched the surface here. There’s a lot of power to this thing that I’m not sure I fully grasp yet. One thing that I really like is that taxonomies so often become outdated the day you create them, not to mention a giant resource drain with all the meetings and revisions and implementation costs. News evolves so quickly that you shouldn’t be locked into a closed hierarchy. So, this way I can intelligently tag and display all the rich content on this site, regardless of the type of content, as the stories we’re covering evolve over time. That gave me the ROI incentive to dive into this, and then I discovered deeper value which I’ll share as new examples appear.”
THIS GOT MY GEARS TURNING
Hmmmm…. For awhile now I’ve been playing with a slightly related idea in the back of my mind: setting up a separate del.icio.us account and using it to create an index for items posted in this weblog. (I use my current del.icio.us account to share my ongoing list of recommended reading.)
In some ways, creating an index is kind of like tagging. You identify the keywords associated with topics or themes (as well as other special items like people, organizations, and places) The format is different, and you’re using URLs instead of page numbers, but I think the basic concept holds.
Most people generally tag very informally (even inconsistently), but there’s no reason why you couldn’t be a bit more structured in how you specify tags if you wanted to.
And then I got to thinking: Well if I tagged CONTENTIOUS articles index-style in del.icio.us, then I’d be able to see which other del.icio.us users had bookmarked my articles. Which would be cool, because currently you can’t search all of del.icio.us, you can only search the link collections of specific users. (Which is a bit of a drag. If I’m wrong about that, please explain how to accomplish this.)
So, hmmm, let me try a quick little experiment…
AMY RUNS TO DEL.ICIO.US FOR A QUICK ADVENTURE
Indeed, as of this writing 2o del.icio.us users besides myself have bookmarked that article. So what can I learn from this?
I clicked on the link that said “and 20 other people” and found a list of each of those other people’s bookmarks for my article. Most people didn’t bother adding comments in their bookmarks (which appears to be typical), so that’s not very useful.
However, what is potentially very useful is the common tags list that appears in the upper right corner. I’m not exactly sure how this is determined, but I think it shows the most common terms used by those 20 people to categorize my article. There’s a number next to each common tag, which I think indicates the number of people who’ve used that tag for that bookmark.
The list of common tags for that bookmark to my article currently is:
- community (4)
- online (3)
- internet (3)
- blogging (3)
- web (2)
- blogs (2)
- facilitation (2)
Interesting. Most of those tags are bland, but some of them represent opportunities for valuable connections I could be making. For instance, I’m interested in a number of issues related to how to use online media to facilitate group discussions. I belong to an e-mail list for online facilitation professionals, and I may end up moving part of my career in that direction. It makes sense for me to want to reach those people.
However, this made me realize that at that point I had no del.icio.us tag called “facilitation.” In my own twisted little mind, I consider the word “facilitation” clunky and jargonish. To me, “conversation” more clearly conveys my personal emphasis on the topic. But that’s not how others may see things. And if I want to connect with del.icio.us users who are into facilitation (more correctly, if I want them to find me there), I’d better have a tag that reflects the words they use.
…So I went back to edit my bookmark for the article and added a “facilitation” tag to my list. One problem solved.
Next, I clicked on the “community” tag listed under my bookmark (they’re all hyperlinks) and accessed the del.icio.us page for all bookmarks tagged “community.” Scanning the items here gives me a clue about what other sorts of items people believe belong to this category. In other words, it gives me a flavor of how people VIEW that topic (its current context), rather than a mere encyclopedia-style, taxonomic description of “community.”
I love context. I’m a total context junkie.
For even more context, there’s a related tags column on the right now. These are:
…No big surprises there, but it does tell me more about what kinds of topics might be “naturally” connected to community in the amorphous online consciousness.
So what?Well, aside from learning how to make it easier for del.icio.us users to find my content, and aside from building an index that inherently creates and enhances relationships, I’m also getting ideas.
If I start seeing disparate topics being repeatedly associated, I’m going to wonder why. What’s the connection? It’s rather like an associative game I enjoy, MetaMemes.
That might give me ideas for new articles, or new projects, or new research efforts. Consider it intellectual R&D. It clues me in about how concepts that interest me are evolving, emerging, and diverging. It’s yet another tool for staying ahead of the curve.
BUT WILL NEWS STAFF TAG?
Getting back to news organizations…
Not too long ago I was speaking with a colleague who runs the website for a major daily paper. We were discussing content management systems, XML, and feeds. I was saying how I think reporters and editors should take responsibility for tagging (either in a formal taxonomy or informal folksonomy) relevant keywords for each story.
See, personally I think that stories should be tagged by the reporters and editors who create them not just clerks or interns. If you’ve actually created the content, you have a visceral grasp of relevant topics which might not be obvious to the casual reader. It seems to me that tags are often about implications or connections, not just descriptions. That’s one reason why I like tags so much.
But my friend laughed, saying news staff would never want to be bothered with that task. They’re already too swamped, and it would be too geeky for them anyway.
Yeah, I know, he’s probably right. When I talk excitedly about tagging, journalists tend to give me blank stares. I’m used to that.
Still, it seems to me that McAlister’s article, and my tiny experiment here, might indicate some long-term business impetus for changing that mindset. We’ll see.