Tags, Tagging, and Folksonomies as social system

Tagging and folksonomies have been on my mind recently. I’m still not clear on how they work. I got to thinking today about what kind of social system tags might represent. And then started thinking about semiotics, linguistic systems, systems theory. And came up with some thoughts. I don’t know how these will hold up but I’d like feedback. So here goes.

1) Tags are words selected for their association. Users select a tag, or tags, in association with a site, and submit the two together (to delicious, flickr, technorati, etc.).

2) But tags are not just personal associations; they’re seen by others and used by others, and it’s generally assumed that there’s a social phenomenon at work in tag cultures.

3) Tags must then communicate something. At a minimum they are a personal pnemonic, a trigger for recollection or memory. In their most social form they’re a social system that captures, and grows over time, as a repository of collective action.

4) If we begin with tags as a simple word association, we might start with semiotics or sign systems. Semiotics might be a helpful way to think of tags because signs obtain their meaning for their relations, or differences, with other signs. The system of signs supplies the sign its meaning. An indexical sign, by contrast, relates directly to its meaning, as smoke indicates fire (fire makes smoke). No referential system is required. Tags are chosen because they denote, connote, or refer in some other way to the item they tag.

5) If an individual user tagged his or her bookmarks for personal use only, we could stop here. Each user would use his or her own personal associations as a means by which to store and save bookmarks and that would be that.

6) But tags are shared. Tags are chosen based on their ability to communicate to a community of users. Semiotics won’t work. But a linguistic system is unnecessary: tags aren’t worked into phrases, sentences, with grammatical rules, etc. So what are they then?

7) I want to venture that tags are a unique kind of social system.

a) Tag cultures sediment time. With each tag submitted with bookmarks, the overall culture changes slightly. No historical record of its previous state is kept. It’s a dynamically changing system that captures and stores individual selections available to the community at large. This makes it a textbook auto-poetic system, self-reflexive and self-reproducing.

b) Tags qualify information by selecting individual submissions (we can assume that users find them qualified to be submitted, I think).

c) Tag cultures are supposed to create an organizing view of information, qualified by individual selections.

d) But in the tag system, quality comes from quantity. The more a tag is used, the more value it accrues in its culture.

e) As a tag’s value increases, it’s gain in popularity becomes a self-reinforcing system. It is chosen more for having been chosen more. Quality may be lost here, as a selection based on the system’s self-reflexivity becomes more likely than a more original, personal, association (the idea that inspired Josh Schachter in the first place: “whatever pops into your head”).

f) Because the culture does not record its incremental states, but is instead always clearing its own traces from memory, every quantitative gain is at the cost of a qualitative difference.

g) In systems theory, the more internally differentiated a system is, the more encounters it can have with new information.

h) The system’s communicability and its ability to serve as a social artifact, capturing and facilitating social action (selections of individuals who share domain knowledge and a conceptual/sign system) runs on a very simple social engine.

8) That’s about where my ability to recall the order of alphabet gets sketchy. What are the implications of the above, if it’s an accurate description of tags, tagging, and folksonomies? I wonder if over time we can accrue value to tags by networking them. I know this isn’t a new idea. But just as we recognize the value in the diversity of cultures and ecosystems, diversity in tag cultures, as vernaculars of a sort, might help to preserve value. Preserving the state of a culture, also, might be worth looking into, if only to lay down time capsules!

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