Tagging as Identity Construction

For my paper, I’ve been looking at tagging on sites like Del.icio.us and Flickr.  Lots of interesting design opportunities here (e.g. vocabulary problems, identifying communities of practice, adapting to site navigation). One thing I found particularly interesting was how much you can learn about someone from their tag cloud (and how eager some people are to share their tag clouds). Yes, tags clouds are useful interfaces…but an individual’s tag cloud also says something about them; a community’s tag cloud says something about that community.  In this sense, they are similar to facebook and myspace: they are ever-changing interfaces of the self.

This echoes some ideas from Manovich: “…creating a work in new media can be understood as construction of an interface to a database. […] As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items.”  This cultural logic of the database manifested in new media has led to a database complex, “an irrational desire to preserve and store everything.” [e.g. lifelogging, lifecaching]

The other key form of new media that Manovich talks about is navigable space.  “The subject of the information society finds peace in the knowledge she can slide over endless fields of data, locating nay morsel of information with the click of a button, zooming through file systems and networks.”

How do we make sense of all this database information? This multiplying abundance of digital things?  How do we make sense of navigable space? Our spatial meanderings? Our digital memories?

Tagging is one way; a language for talking about experience in cyberspace…for constructing identity through an interface to a database of experience.

Tagging and tagging interfaces are wonderfully simple. The tagging interface reverses the search interface: you freely associate terms with resource you are tagging so that you can find it in the future.  The notion of a tag, as metadata, isn’t new.  But the idea of letting anyone assign any label they want to anything IS new.

So why tag clouds are a good construction of identity?  First off, we actively collect and manage them (as opposed to search histories or page view histories).  With a folksonomy (i.e. collaborative tagging), there are no predefined categories or hierarchy, no natural ordering.  Tag clouds are a good way to construct a (usable) interface to a database of yourself because you do not need to decide who you are ahead of time.  Tags can be simple and understandable, as well as rich and expressive.  The virtual flaneur may not have time to keep a narrative diary of her travels, but she is willing to tag up digital destinations she finds meaningful.   [is this authorship?]

Current applications that use tagging focus on the utilitarian aspects of tagging for the user and community (e.g. searching, navigating, and browsing content).  Many studies focus on the empirical, quantitative insights that can be drawn from analyzing tags.  This is all quite fascinating. However, there doesn’t seem to be much focus on the experiential, qualitative aspects of tagging…on tags as related to identity and ongoing construction of an interface to a database of the self.

 A few interesting design directions…

 Merging/alternating hierarchies and clusters.

 EX:  the ability to “bundle” tags on delicious gives people more (top-down) control over the management and display of their tags

 Merging/alternating database and narrative; making syntagms more explicit.

 EX: visualizing the evolution of “interesting” tags in Flickr with a river and waterfall metaphor.


  1. Dave Roedl

    Tagging is a great topic, especially in light of Manovich’s claims, and the connection to identity construction is a very interesting insight.

    I’m not sure if you found this link yet, but this thesis is a great resource. In terms of identity, probably the most relevant section is the You Say, We Say design, which allows a user to compare her tag cloud to that of the larger group. This interaction would seem to promote reflection on ones identity.

  2. jimmypierce

    i really like your dea of promoting reflection on ones identity through comparison of interfaces, such as say, tag clouds. thanks for the link!


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