Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Tagging the future

I am going to Toronto next week for the Hypertext 2010 conference. I attended my first Hypertext conference in 1996, and from 1999-2002, I went every year. A number of factors (work, family, distance, timing, and my own inability to do any sustained critical writing) have prevented me from getting to the last several, but this conference still holds a special place in my heart. I've been to a variety of academic conferences, small and large, and I generally manage to enjoy myself at them (even that infamous midwinter fear festival, the MLA), but the Hypertext conferences have been, hands down, my favorite. The size is manageable, the quality of the work presented is high, the organization typically first-rate (HT01 in Århus, Denmark holds the distinction as the single most beautiful conference I've attended), but most importantly, I have always felt strangely at home amid the odd mix of computer scientists and humanists the conference attracts. So I am approaching this conference with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Having been away from it for so long, I wonder if the atmosphere will be the same, and whether I will still feel the same connection to the field as I used to. I am hoping the answer is yes, and if not, there's always the NXNE Music Festival going on in Toronto at the same time.

I had hoped to to take part in a pre-conference workshop on the Rhetorical and Semantic Possibilities of Links, but apparently I was one of only two people who submitted position papers for it and it got cancelled. I was a little bummed about that because that position paper was the first bit of vaguely critical writing I'd done in a very long time and I was actually pretty happy with it. So rather than let it go to waste, I thought I'd put it up here. It’s an idea I have been kicking around for a while, and it seemed to fit nicely with the questions raised in workshop's call:

Mark Bernstein has written that the link is "the most important new punctuation mark since the comma." More than that, the link actually conveys meaning. But how do people use links to communicate ideas? This workshop is designed to uncover the semantic value of the link and its potential rhetorical effects. We want to know what has been the cultural, literary, rhetorical, and semantic impact of the link to date, and what future effects can we anticipate and bring about.
( CFP: HT2010 Workshop. Rhetorical and Semantic Possibilities of Links: Cultural and Literary Applications of Links )

Anyway, here's what I wrote.

Tags as Future-tense Links

One of my principle interests at the moment is tagging, which was popularized on such social media sites as Flickr and Delicious and has since become ubiquitous not only on websites, but also in PC software. In a wide variety of contexts and applications, user-generated tags are employed as a means of providing ad hoc, organic organization to potentially massive bodies of information. In this, tags are different from, and generally seen as being in opposition to, traditional taxonomies and classification systems. A good deal has been written about the efficacy of tags as a new form of information management (one of the champions of tagging in this regard is David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous [2007]; for a contrarian view, see Cathy Marshall, "Do Tags Work?" Tekka 4:1 [2009]).

I am, however, interested in the role tags play as links. As commonly implemented, a tag usually appears as a link which will, when activated, take a reader to a list of all other items that have been assigned the same tag. That is, tags become part of the navigational structure of the information space they are being used to describe. (In this, tags differ from keywords, which are typically considered metadata and are often visible only to machine functions like search engines.) Tag-links, however, differ from other types of links in that they are open-ended. Rather than pointing to a particular node or executing a defined action, a tag functions as a point of attraction, around which possibly-related material might congregate.

Put in grammatical terms, tagging could be said to add a ‘future tense’ to hypertext linking. The classic reference link operates in the past tense: e.g., we expect a link to a news article or blog posting to point to news or information associated with a fixed point in the past. Other links function in the present tense: e.g., we expect a link to the main page of a news or blog site to show us current information, regardless of when the link itself was created. Tags might be said to operate in both these ways (as finding aids, they help link to information created in the past; in the form of "tag clouds" they can provide a snapshot of the present shape of a given information space), but tags also imply a link to things that don't yet exist, a way of linking prospectively to things that may be created in the future. This future orientation of tags becomes clear when one considers that for every tag, there must be a first time it is used, and since a tag that can only be applied to one unique object or location is essentially pointless (except, perhaps as a joke), every first use of a tag expresses a faith in future uses yet to come.

If hypertext in general can be seen as a response to the challenge of navigating extremely large information spaces, tagging, with its future orientation, could be seen as a recognition of the fact that these information spaces are not only large but ever-growing. By providing a means of linking to the unknown and as-yet-unwritten, tagging represents a significant expansion of the the ‘grammar’ of hypertext. But such an expansion implies new questions about the rhetoric of linking. The conventions and expectations for linking to known quantities are still evolving. How, then, do we reach a consensus on how to link to future content that may or may not ever be created? How is this future function of tagging balanced against the weight of the past? If the first use of a tag is purely future facing, what happens with each subsequent use, as precedent begins to shape the connotative value of the link? Is the rhetoric of future-linking different in a public environment like a social network than it is when tags are being created by and for just a handful or even a single user? How do we handle tags whose meaning is ambiguous, or whose significance changes over time? What happens when tags are used with humorous, satirical, or subversive intentions?

Like so many facets of social media, however, there is much about tagging that remains unsettled. For hypertext studies, I believe tagging raises numerous questions. It is these that I would most like to explore during the workshop.