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Web 2.0: Is a Tag The Same Thing As A Word?

Is a tag the same thing as a word? At first glance this may seem like a rather flimsy question. On the surface, a tag is a word that is used as a label to group and categorize content that is perceived to have something in common. Perhaps they are a means to help find and share content in socially driven web environments. In writing Tagging: The Numbstance of the Technological Idiot I ranted on about the intellectual frailty of tagging. So after a rant, it is always good to start having a closer look at the situation and begin experimenting with the environment to see if anything can be gleaned from it...

Tags and Web 2.0?

One of the first things that becomes apparent about tagging is that it belongs to something referred to as Web 2.0. What Web 2.0 is a mystery to me, and I have read enough now to almost be certain that it will likely remain so. Although I have read a number of articles on what Web 2.0 is and understand the descriptions being provided, I and while I can see some added value I still fail to understand its significance. Much of this comes from the notion that Web 2.0 is somehow enhances the power of the individual to create and share content in a distributed-collective-connective manner. This is in contrast what must have been Web 1.0, which is often characterized as more of a pushing of predetermined content at people. So in a slightly different variation on the same theme, there is discussion about more "power" and "control" given to the user to create and share content.

The idea of tagging in Web 2.0 is one example of how this "new" environment promotes a greater range of power and control: a) anyone can use a word(s) to label a body of content; b) the various items grouped under a tag are thought to have similar qualities; c) tags can be shared in "social" environments and a single tag offers access to content items of many people; d) tags alter our notion of what a search engine is and the idea of findability becomes closely linked with popularity.

What is truly odd, although perhaps I should not think this to be odd, is that once again we are seeing people, often-respected experts, and decree a new Internet age. So now we no longer need to put an "e" or an "m" in front of everything, we can omit them and simply attach "2.0" as a means to propagate the delusion of progress. For example, what was once referred to as e-Learning changes to e-Learning 2.0 and perhaps eventually Learning 2.0. The basic formula for this delusion is:

Any Word(s) + 2.0 = New Innovation

So, as software has been labeled through various development phases, we now label the "new" web in the same manner. I expect this notion will soon find its way into other realms it doesn't belong, such as notions like Learning 2.0, Learning Styles 2.0, Curriculum 2.0, Educational Technology 2.0, Weblogging 2.0, Writing 2.0, Reading 2.0 and so on. We may also see extensions of the 2.0 phenomenon to appliances such as toilets - that is, Toilets 2.0 - where the contents of each flush is analyzed and uniquely tagged, shared and ranked for popularity. Then, of course, someone, probably a psychologist, will take us into the domain of human emotions with notions like Happiness 2.0 or Depression 2.0.

I am reminded of that essential tool in understanding e-Commerce, the Web Economy Bullshit Generator. While Web 2.0 references do not yet appear, we can also assume that keeping a bullshit generator up-to-date must be a very time consuming proposition.

Update: George Siemens nicely captures the issue:

While I'm complaining - I would also like to highlight the severe deficiency in our vision in regards to our potential. We are not good keepers of our industry. We are designing courses, blogging, running wikis, and reading RSS. We think that's where the learning is...that we are doing our learners a service by taking these approaches. But it's more. Much more. Our myopic vision does a disservice to our field. As learning designers, it's about designing for life. Learning is all around - TV, newspapers, internet, conversations, etc. We can't get away from learning. Yet we toil away in front of our computers, designing for this narrow space called "learning". I think the learning specialist of tomorrow (as early as five years) will hold many positions not traditional to our field.
- George Siemens in Enough With 2.0

Complaining? Sounds like a good argument to me. The key idea for me is: "As learning designers, it's about designing for life."

A tag seems to be an idea associated with what we might refer to as the emerging Web 2.0 vocabulary. The emergence of this vocabulary seems to have more in common with a flu symptom than the rising sun. It seems that innovation often requires a new vocabulary so that it can sound appealing but not easily understood. Confused and bloated vocabulary is an expert's best defense. For example, take the term social bookmarks and imagine a group of bookmarks having a party. But seriously, it really is a stupid phrase - and I have used it to. The idea that bookmarks are social is nonsensical. Can they be shared? Of course. Can they be communicated to others via the web? Yes. Are they social or are we in some significant manner more social because of them? No.

I have also seen and read about the term e-Learning 2.0. The fact that attaching an e to learning [I assume the e refers to the word electronic and not excrement] makes absolutely no sense doesn't seem to stop people from doing it. We can compound the confusion by placing 2.0 at the end of it. Why not 2.1, or squared? We could lose the e - which is really an admission that it makes no sense anyway - and just have Learning 2.0, but I would prefer Learning squared. I wonder if this has happened yet. Undoubtedly the idea of tagging will become an essential tool in an "open" highly "personal" and "creative" environment of 2.0. I can't wait to see... drum roll please.... Lifelong Learning 2.0! No wait - has anyone started with 3.0 yet?

None of this is to say that tags have no value. A tag seems to be a label applied to a group of content that an individual decides has something in common. After ranting about tags in (which by the way was not a rant about itself). I decided to see if I could make something I could use from it. So EDN: Internal Site Tools summarizes the various tools I have used, or may consider using in the future, in the development of this weblog. I find something of interest, I bookmark it, I share it, and I stream the listing into my website. Perhaps others will find something of interest in it over time and that is fine - and perhaps not. I can say that I have returned to it and have used it as a resource. I wonder how many people actually use the long lists of links and tags they create in a productive way. This is, however, a very simple database function that is handy, but not innovative. The fact that my tagged item joins the ranks of 27,901 other people that have tagged it is not much help. This is not a criticism of other people that have tagged the item, but let's face it, if I find a tag that has a high ranking in popularity, what does that really mean? I don't know.

If we tag everything there is to tag in Web 2.0 land we will have a very big database, or perhaps data swamp. The most popular items rise to the top of the swamp and are the most visible, while the vast majority of items remained submerged. Marketers and professional bloggers will all busy themselves with finding ways of floating. In addition, we likely have a collective classification scheme that is so fragmented and disjointed that we frequently find the relationship between the tag and the content itself to be illusive.

Searching Tags, Searching Words, Searching Meaning

If a writer is seeking creativity and clarity of thought, their orientation to words will be different from someone who writes without artistry. A writer lacking artistry will attempt to understand words through definitions. They will assume that there are specified meanings for words that are commonly understood. Worse, they will assume that these meanings are found in a dictionary are in fact meanings. This would imply that we can find the meaning of love in the dictionary when what we really find is a definition of love and not its meaning. What is the meaning, not definition, of meaning? Meaning is constructed of thoughts, feelings and individual experiences. The meaning of a word lies beyond the word itself. To go beyond the words is to embark on an investigation of meaning. Nor do we find meaning in a tag as this example clearly shows. There is no meaning to be found in a dictionary, or in a tag.

The idea of findability, which I assume refers to making something easier to find, really reflects a desire to be known and a desire to share. This in turn means we must seek popularity in our tags, otherwise we are destined to remain on results pages that many of us would never click to. It is a similar line of thinking that leads some people to seek higher rankings in search engines. The main difference being that other people create popularity in tags, while software creates popularity in search engines. The supposed benefit is that people rankings are better that software rankings. I find myself wanting to believe in this, yet struggle to see the reality of it.

For example, the most popular bookmark for intelligence is 16 Ways To Drive Traffic To Your Blog [as of January 9, 2006], yet are we literally seeing something that reveals intelligence? Is this a form of collective intelligence? At least when I search for intelligence in Google I get something that seems more useful at first glance. But of course I am not really searching for intelligence, I am searching for the a grouping of letters that combine to make the word intelligence. On the web, we cannot search for meaning - it isn't there. And we are not even searching for words per say, we are searching for a specific series of letters.

If we choose to develop a writing style that seeks greater popularity in Web 2.0 environments, or higher rankings via search engines, we are in fact denigrating what it means to write. For the artist choosing writing as their means of creative expression, Web 2.0 is indeed a foreign and somewhat hostile landscape. Artists do not write in order to create the most popular tags nor the highest ranking in search engines. Why? They simple don't care about such things. An artist will seek to breathe new life into ordinary, commonplace words and perhaps even to reduce or eliminate words that lack vibrancy or resonance with their own experiences. A truly creative writer will also have a well developed crapometer. They have no specific method or process for doing this, except an unwavering ability to remain open to possibilities in life.

A single word can act as a catalyst for creative perception. As mentioned above, a truly creative writer will often take commonplace words and do something extraordinary with them. They will push the reader to reconsider old assumptions with clear and precise language. Creative writers will often push deeper and deeper into a single words by reaching beyond the word itself and into experience. It is commonplace to say that a word is not the thing it intends to describe. All words are intermediaries.

Perhaps creative uses of tags can invite a similar creative energy. It may be possible that a tag can be used to push our perception, to invite us to reach beyond the tag itself. Beyond a single word is a world of experience and a constant flow of meaning that is highly personal and individual. Meaning does not occur in the absence of personal experience. This orientation to words and tags is focused on the power of human observation, not on classification schemes, labels, taxonomies, and analysis - no matter how "social" or "connected" we characterize them.

I sense that truly creative uses of tags will originate in the creative perception of the artist. Why? It is artistic perception that takes us beyond the confines of definition and confronts the tougher question of meaning. And to confront meaning is to go beyond both words and tags.

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Hi Pearl,
Thanks for the link. I have come across this before, but when I see the word "learning" combined with the word "theory" I tend to ignore it. Can the reality of "learning" be apprehended via the abstraction of "theory?" No. But I will have another look at it and maybe post something.

I don't understand what a tag is beyond the verb to say, do the quiz too. It may be the cloudiness of the hour.

But I wanted to drop off a link on learning/training in case you hadn't seen it. It coveres a lot of ground:

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