To tag or not to tag

[Read this on the BBC News website too]

As I write this a message has just arrived in my email Inbox. That brings the total up to 6,559, though if it wasn’t for the junk mail filter it would top seven thousand.

It’s an absurd situation, especially since a year ago I would ruthlessly prune my email if there were over two hundred messages sitting there.

But a year ago I was using Microsoft Outlook on a Windows PC.

Now I have a PowerBook and use Apple’s own mail programme, called ‘Mail’ in a fit of literalism that rarely afflicts the inventor of the iPod and the AirPort. And as well as Mail Apple provide a program called Spotlight that indexes every file on your hard drive, including your email, address book and calendars.

As a result if I want to find an email from my friend Rebekah I just have to click on the white magnifying glass in a blue circle on the top right of my screen and type her name.

Within a second Spotlight finds all the emails from and to her, some photos I’d forgotten about and a load of documents that she has written.

Spotlight has corrupted me, and I’m not sure I can recover.

When I made the switch to a Mac laptop Windows search was clunky and slow, and finding email messages was a pain, so I made the effort to file each one.

I set up a rich and complicated hierarchy of folders and subfolders, with separate locations for projects, writing, personal emails. There was even, I blush to admit, a separate folder for emails received in response to articles I wrote about the Firefox browser, in the folder ‘work in progress/copy/billblog/feedback/linux and open source/firefox’!

Now I’ve lost the discipline and instead I have a dozen or so folders, none of which I keep up to date by moving messages into them.

And I have almost seven thousand emails in my inbox, far too many even to think about sorting through.

I could switch back, but now Windows has Desktop Search which does the same as Safari, so I still wouldn’t be under the same pressure to keep my filing up to date.

And it’s clear that it was only the lack of a lazy alternative that kept me honest. I don’t have a naturally tidy disposition, but the negative consequences of not being able to find emails were great enough to force me to file, spending hours on train journeys deciding whether an email from a friend should be filed under their name or whether it was mostly about a project we were working on and should go into the project folder.

The real danger of relying on search, especially on text-based search which is what Spotlight and everything else does, is that it does not allow links to be made. An email from someone about a project I’m working on may not mention the project by name, and so I will never find it again, but if it had been filed in the right place then I’d spot it easily.

Without a classification system, and some sort of formal mechanism for placing content in the relevant place, we risk losing important data. We also make it impossible for co-workers or, in the longer term, historians, to have any idea what we were up to.

An information archaeologist who came across my archived Outlook folders would have a pretty good idea about my work and life just from looking at the structure, but someone faced with 6,612 – it’s gone up while I was writing – email messages would find it very hard going.

What’s the solution? Well, although I’ve always been critical of the idea of the ‘folksonomy’, defined by Wikipedia as ‘a collaboratively generated, open-ended labelling system that enables Internet users to categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links’, it may be the only option left.

Instead of having a filing system or adopting a rigid classification, the folksonomy approach advocates adding descriptive words or phrases, called ‘tags’ to each item. It’s the way that photo-sharing sites like Flickr do it, and I certainly tag my photos

According to some of the adherents of the folksonomy approach, like network theorist Clay Shirky, these community-driven systems are far more powerful than any externally imposed classification mechanism, because they allow expressive vocabularies to emerge.
However this is not necessarily going to happen.

Anyone who has searched through photographs tagged ‘Cambridge’ on Flickr will see, few people bother to distinguish Cambridge England from Cambridge, Mass, and if there’s no tag then there’s no way to be sure what you’re looking at. Even looking for ‘Cambridge but not Boston’ won’t help – it gets rid of 8,000 pictures but still leaves 2,919 tagged ‘cambridge’ and ‘harvard’.

But disciplined tagging could well work and it is worth exploring how to do it.

Developer Andy Beaumont has been thinking about the same question, and he has been looking at MailTags, which lets you add tags to mail messages. He seems to think it can do the job for Mac users, and it’s shareware so I can try it out first.

I doubt I’ll ever go back to filing my messages by hand, but if tagging can help me impose a structure on the data that flows in and out of my laptop each day then it will help me now. It might even make life easier for those who will look back on these early years of the twenty-first century and try to figure out just what we thought we were up to. I’m sure that’s worth spending some time on the train marking up messages.

Bill’s Links

Spotlight on the Mac:
Windows Desktop Search:
Andy Beaumont on tagging email:
Shirky on folksonomies

BoingBoing lauds Shirky:

3 Replies to “To tag or not to tag”

  1. If I could tag the messages that flow in and out of my email client then it would certainly save me several hours each week ‘searching’ for a particular email, that I am sure I read, sure I received and sure that I replied to, yet the recipient claims to have not received it but I cant prove either way because I cant find the damn delivery and read receipts, let alone the original email!

  2. Bill,

    Maybe you already know this, but you can tag individual files using the Spotlight Comments field in the get-info window for each file. Unfortunately Tiger will only allow you to do this one file at a time(maybe Leopard will fix this), but there are sharware tools like “Meta” that allow you to do this now, with multiple files. (see


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