Implications for Health and Mental Health Information Online
I’ve seen this question from varying folks over the past year or so as the next obvious evolution in the “tagging” craze — “Why don’t we just tag everything and then everything will be searchable?!”
Great question, because it has implications for how one develops websites in almost any field, but it makes for especially interesting fodder in health and mental health.
Should we just tag everything and call it a Web 2.0 day? Do Web 2.0 concepts, such as combining social networking and tagging together, bring something new and valuable to the technology table?
What is Tagging?
Just to bring you up to speed… “Tagging” is the action of adding a bunch of keywords to a piece of content. Content can be a photo (which rarely has internal keyword information embedded in it), a link (again, rarely has any way of expressing taxonomy or categorization internally), or anything you can think of. Then, when you go to search on that keyword, ostensibly you’ll find the stuff you want in some “better” manner. Better is, of course, a purely subjective term, as you’ll see below.
With the services that have been popularized by this notion — namely Flickr and Del.icio.us — the tagging makes a huge amount of sense. People have been struggling for years on how to identify images and photos because outside of the filename, there’s been little intelligence to indexing systems of photos. (Yes, there is metadata, but the Average Joe doesn’t know how or can’t be bothered to use it consistenly.) Flickr simply allows you to associate pieces of text with photos. One could make a similar argument for Web links (URLs), since outside of the title of the link, it’s hard to add more categorization information to the link without external help (e.g., folders).
One of the keys of tagging services such as these is that owners can add keywords to their images, but so can anybody else. The more people who tag the same keywords on the piece of content, the more “relevant” that piece of content is to a search on the same keyword.
Why Tagging Works for Photos, Videos and Bookmarks
There’s no mystery as why the most popular services online today that actually use tagging in a useful, integrated manner are for photos, videos and Web links. These pieces of content are notoriously difficult to keep track of and organize on our computers, much less on the Web. Web browsers have given lip service to helping people organize their bookmarks or favorites, but nobody has every developed a creative solution that “just works” until Del.icio.us came along. The same is true for Flickr or vimeo.
When the network of people who use these systems are just ordinary folk and relatively small in number, I believe these systems can work fairly well. But, like other Web 2.0 projects, when it comes time to scale, they appear to lose something in the transition. I believe that unless such projects are designed from the ground up to address the concerns I’m about to outline below, they are bound to run into scalability issues from a usability standpoint.