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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tag, you're it!

The following is a guest post from my friend Aaron. He had originally posted it on his blog, but has since decommissioned that blog to pursue other interests. Anyway, this post was important enough that I asked him if I could repost it here as a guest post and he said "Sure", 'cause he's like my friend and all. I want to keep it alive for posterity because I have some things to write about that will build on this. So here it is, used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License

Tags, by Aaron

I want tags.

Unfortunately, I have tags.

What I want is a single universe of tags for all of my digital information. What I have is disparate sets of often duplicate tags for segments of some my digital information, or stovepipes:

[Stovepipe is] used to describe a system that does not interoperate with other systems, presuming instead that it is the only extant system.

A stovepipe system is an example of an anti-pattern legacy system and demonstrates software brittleness.

My posts on this blog, currently hosted by Google's blogger, can have tags. Google calls them labels, everyone else calls them tags.

My messages in my gmail account can have tags, er, labels. But they're a different set of tags from the tags on my blogger posts.

The contacts in my gmail account do not have tags. Why not? I might choose to tag email messages to and from a recruiter with the career tag. Why shouldn't I also be able to tag that recruiter's contact entry with the career tag, and then choose to call up all career messages, or all career contacts, or, every bit of information in my digital universe tagged as career?

I usually don't access my gmail account via their web interface. Instead I use Mozilla's Thunderbird to access my messages via gmail's IMAP interface. All of my messages appear to be in folders, but the folders really represent the various tags in my set of gmail messages. So if a message is tagged with blue and red, Thunderbird displays a blue folder and a red folder, and that message appears to be in both folders. I can create new gmail tags by creating new folders in Thunderbird; they will appear as tags in gmail's web interface. I can tag a message in Thunderbird by dragging it into a folder. I can put multiple tags on a message by copying the message into multiple folders. Mega-kudos to google for this. I have wanted this exact behavior, messages in multiple folders/tags, for years.

Thunderbird itself has its own notion of tags on messages, but I don't use Thunderbird tags, since gmail's tags are superior and available to me in more contexts.

Google reader, which I use for reading blog feeds, is particularly conflicted, especially with itself. You can tag subscribed blogs. The blog tags are shown by reader in different contexts as folders or as tags (and here, google actually calls them tags, not labels). You can tag individual posts, which are always only shown as being tagged, not being "in a folder." But ignoring reader's internal inconsistency, its tags are externally consistent, in that they are yet again a separate set of tags from my gmail messages and my blogger posts. That last is particularly ironic. I tag my blogger posts with tags when I write the posts, and when I view my own posts in reader, I can tag them again. The tags that come along with the posts from blogger are totally separate from and unrelated to the reader tags that I might attach to posts and blogs.

I don't mean to pick on google, but I also use Google's bookmarks. Each bookmark can be tagged with multiple tags. These tags are, of course, separate from any other set of tags in my universe.

Then there are the reddits and diggs, in which I can tag or categorize my posts with yet more sets of separate tags.

Many systems offer tags, because people like them. I can't blame system producers for the current state of tags, but I do believe that we have reached the point where we should be moving toward a single universe of tags.

I would be really happy if google, at least, would consolidate all of their apps and systems into a single universe of tags. But beyond that, it would be useful to have tag servers, in the same way that we now have email servers and identity servers.

If you have a web email account like gmail or yahoo, it doesn't matter who your ISP is, Comcast or a local dialup or Starbucks, your email address is always the same. For those of us who own our own domain names, like, we don't even have to be tied to an email provider. If you change email providers you can move your email to your new provider, although it's tedious, or you can just keep your email on your own PC, but your email address remains the same ( in my case).

Identity servers are now starting to get traction, OpenId in particular. You can establish an online identity and use any number of OpenId providers to "serve" your identity. For any web service that accepts OpenId, you can log in with your single OpenId instead of the multiple username/passwords that you now have for your multiple services (email, blog, social networks, etc.). Blogger, for example, accepts OpenId as identification when commenting on a blog post. OpenId is not yet accepted by the majority of popular services, but that could change.

Just as with email, you can change your OpenId server and still retain your identity.

The same should be possible with tags. There should be tag services to which you can subscribe, allowing you to tag all of your data, whether it's email, contacts, blogs, bookmarks or local files. If you choose, you can move your tags at any time to another tag service.

Google would be an excellent organization for serving tags. They already have a large number of data types that use tags. They could get a jump on being a universal tag server by first integrating all their disparate tag systems into a single, Google-wide tag system.

If I was made King of the World, that's the first thing I'd do: universal tags, day one, eight o'clock.


ccjjharmon said...

Yeah Google might be an excellent organization for serving tags, but I'm not sure I'd go with them since as you've already pointed out, they sure don't have this done across the entire "product offering"....

I also hereby gripe and moan that I can't stand it when I comment on your blog (and everyone else that uses Blogger) and it always defaults to using my Google/Blogger identity! No sir I want to use my OpenID!!!!

Jim said...


I think Google will get there. Then you have to wonder, "Do you want Google to know everything there is to know about you?" I think the answer is, "Too late!" But really, some entity somewhere is going to have to to provide the functionality I am looking for.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim said...


Your service would seem to be an interesting implementation of exactly what we're talking about here, but I have removed your comment with the embedded link because (a) your Blogger profile is unavailable, and (b) your Web site gives no indication of who you are, so (c) I can only infer your comment is a spam pushing people toward a phishing site set up to gather their userids and passwords for the various services mentioned.

If you can convince me of your service's validity and your true identity, then I will reinstate the comment. Otherwise, I will delete it permanently in a week or so.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.