One of these things is not like the other

Recently, an ad campaign reminded me of the books which teach young children to cluster concepts. The kinds learn to find mutual characteristics of a number of objects, and to eliminate the object which is different.

Riddle

Creating categories by naming a difference from the rest is popular, but in information architectue, it’s often not acceptable. All objects need to be located SOMEplace in the structure. They need to “live” somewhere, as a customer recently phrased it (very nicely adopting the information architecture metaphor). In archives, the most important files are usually classified under “general” or “miscellaneous” because no-one bothered to create an adequate category for something happening outside the daily routine. In web projects, naming the residue categories (or breaking them down to well-defined clusters) is usually a time-consuming challenge and for the most part not well solved.

This is where tags come in. They reverse the process:

  1. Instead of creating a category based on mutual features, and giving that category an understandable name, the object itself is described by its distinct features.
  2. Tags are attributed to the objects by the users, not by information architects.

In the example of the riddle shown above, the kangaroo is usually picked as the odd one out because it’s a marsupial. Finding this distinct feature is actually easier than finding the mutual category of the other animals and then having to find out if the category of marsupials is similar to that of mammals or not.

Also, as a discussion of the riddle shows, the solution is not entirely unambiguous. Deer and kangaroo are usually found wild, the kangaroo lives only in Australia (or in zoos) etc. Tags are convenient to describe these attributes without having to create an appropriate category. They can also be used to attach personal features, like that kangaroos remind me of my stay in Canberra in year 2000, and thus enhance findability, e.g. for a photo of a kangaroo I took at that time.

I’m saving more about tags, e.g. about tag clouds, creating categories from tags etc. for future posts.

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