Tags as Contamination

July 12, 2007

Yesterday I was at a technology session having to do with something called a Learning Object Repository (LOR). A LOR is a virtual place where instructors can publish their educational materials in modular fashion so that other instructors at the institution may discover and re-use them.

One of the important aspects of publishing such material to a repository is including metadata, including keywords or “tags.”

I was observing how a faculty member might search for learning objects, when I asked if it was possible for people other than the author to tag things. My question was met with a blank stare followed by the typical vendor “that’s a good idea for a feature request.” A fellow next to me mumbled something about not wanting to “contaminate” the objects in the repository, presumably from tags given by people other than the author.

Why would you not want to allow others to tag your stuff? If you created a lesson about cell processes you might tag it “biology” or “cell” and so on. But why would you care if I came along later and also tagged it “pedagogy” or “medical art”? It doesn’t take anything away from your content for me to say what I think it means. On the contrary, it adds meaning to the content and makes it discoverable to an audience you hadn’t anticipated.

The author should not be the only person allowed to say what a thing is.


No comments yet

  1. No kidding. What good are author-only tags, other than to the author himself? Shouldn’t the whole purpose of making it easier to find stuff be helpful for the people who don’t the full content of the article?

  2. I agree with both of you that non-author database tags are really where the usefulness of the idea lies.

    That said, I can see how authors would object to contamination, because it’s possible for the tag to influence how a record is viewed, and to change the context in which it’s understood.

    For example, if I lay out an argument about making the pie higher, complete with some logical fallacies, some name-calling, and some non-germane metaphors, I might be quite proud of myself. I’ve put a lot of effort into creating a world-view that’s conducive to pie-raising.

    But when all my readers find my argument by way of a “miserable failure” tag, they’re going to interpret my argument differently than I want them to.

    I think that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for readers to do — an author doesn’t have the final word over how his writings are understood — but I can certainly see why an author might object to an idea that weakens his ability to influence that understanding.

  3. How do you control the quality of the tags beyond the original author? Most people will make a sincere effort to place meaningful tags, but you will always have the malicious users. Take a stem cell research article; a person opposing the research might create tags such as “illegal” or “killer”, etc. which are totally non-relevant to the information contained within the record. In the same way the engineering community creates guidelines and rules for intelligent part numbering systems, the same may be required for meta-tags. This includes an administrator to oversee the additions.

  4. I don’t agree, Bill. I think it’s perfectly okay for someone to tag a lesson on stem cell research as “murder.” That’s not what it means to me, but presumably it meant that to someone. The important point is this: tagging it thus in no way impacts the ability for someone with a different understanding from finding and using the data as intended. We are not talking about “misfiling” the information, as it remains ‘filed’ where it was originally put; it’s simply filed somewhere else now as well. We are not talking about replacing or changing metadata. We are talking about adding to it.

  5. I wonder how we could do that with blogs.

  6. I agree 100%. I am also a fan of experimental navigation schemes, and allowing users to tag content allows for some interesting categorization and navigation like this

  7. The problem with author defined metadata is illustrated by the decline in usefulness web page metatags. The system as originally conceived by library scientists (at least for the most part I beleive) was ingenious. Only when search engines conveyed weight to them did the spammers start to game the system — to the extent that they are largely now ignored. I’d love to see a resurgence of Dublin Core, perhaps with some trust inferring intermediary.

    Of course user tagging is useful in its own right, but subject to the same gaming. My prediction: “Trust” is the catchphrase of the near future. Sure, it’s been tried, but in my opinion, unsuccessfully as of yet.


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