Research Forum: Tagging: A Social, Psychological, and Rhetorical Practice

  • SarahRobbins
Posted: Thu, 02/23/2006 - 07:38

Tagging: A Social, Psychological, and Rhetorical Practice

*This very informal research description is the preliminary work for my dissertation so any and all feedback is much appreciated.*

Tagging is a way of storing bookmarks of sites, locations, people and even photos online with descriptive words that are stored on a website and serve as an indexing term for an online resource. The process of social bookmarking (tagging) is often referred to as folksonomy. Tagging, such as done on and other sites, is not just a Web 2.0 phenomenon but a new way to categorize and describe knowledge resources and their uses. Unlike typical categorization schemes that are uniform and constructed by committees (like library card catalogs), tagging is both individual and communal. Taggers create their lists for their own use, as bookmarks to visit in the future, but also for the use of others. These tags don’t just classify sites according to their content; they are also used to editorialize about the quality or tone of a site as well as to comment on the use of a site. Tags such as “toread� or “readdaily� remind taggers of sites they want to return to. Other tags such as “humorous� or “meta� describe the tone of a site rather than its content.

My preliminary research has been conducted to accomplish these tasks:
1. Provide rationale for studying tagging: Why is it an important rhetorical phenomenon to study?
2. Find ways to categorize tags: can tags be put into categories to study in quantitative and qualitative means?
3. Develop research procedures to best study tagging and tag sets.

As of now my research question is evolving from the following questions:
- Is tagging rhetorical?
- Why is tagging so popular? What makes it “work� for so many users?
- Do tag sets comprise narratives of individual users or sites?
- What is the social importance of tagging? How does tagging restructure knowledge formations?

So far I’ve learned the following important aspects of tagging:
- Readers/users not just authors get to tag objects: this puts the power of classification, categorization, and description in the hands of users rather than creators
- Tagging is social: taggers create their lists not just for themselves but for others to use as well. There is some kind of reputation involved in having a well-known or well-used tag list.
- Tagging “sticks it to the man�: some taggers seem to get a thrill from describing a site for use or content other than what the author intended
- Tagging is always current: tags are fluid and constantly changing for new and old sites alike
- Tagging offers non-linear discovery: tags often offer resources that would not be discovered through traditional search methods
- Tagging is semantic: tags are tightly associated with shifting meaning of words; new words are created as tags
- Tagging is cognitively easier than “authoritative categorization schemes: tagging is associative and more closely related to human thinking processes than are other categorization methods

I’m considering a three-prong approach to studying tagging.
1. One tag, many sites: A study of how a single tag is used to describe similar and dissimilar sites.
2. One site, many tags: A study of the variance of tags assigned to a single site
3. One user, many tags: A case study of one (or several) taggers and his/her tag set. What does a user’s tag set say about him/her?

What I’m most excited about right now is the similarity between the categories of tags I’ve discovered and Kenneth Burke’s Pentad. This leads me to think that there is definitely something rhetorical about tags. *Please note that I’m adding attitude to the Pentad as Burke did in some of his later work*
1. Act: tags that describe the function of a site or how it will be used (ex. “toread� or “costcalculator�)
2. Agency: tags that describe the ethos of a site (ex. “Reliable�)
3. Scene: tags that describe where a site comes from or relates to (ex. “Chicago� or “university�)
4. Agent: tags that describe the author of a site (ex. “cartoonist�)
5. Purpose: tags that describe the purpose of a site (ex. “news�)
6. Attitude: tags that describe the tone of a site (ex. “funny�)

My hope is that this research will not only provide insight into the act of tagging but also into the type of informational “webbing� that occurs on the internet as well as the ways users attain a sort of power over how online resources are discovered and used.

Pentad will be a good start

  • NickC
  • 01/28/06
  • Sun, 02/26/2006 - 10:22


I really like what you're thinking through here. Using Burke's Pentad as start towards a social tagging taxonomy makes a lot of sense.

To me the rationale for describing and understanding tagging comes from how rhetoric operates in matrices of knowing. A rhetorical act, we say, depends upon context. One aspect of context is shared knowledge. So a works cited page or dissertation bibliography is a contextual map. An annotated version of those same sources is a kind of narrated tourguide of that map, of those intellectual stops that helped a writer's argument to emerge.

Social bookmarking merges that act with, as you say, library indexing strategies, to create an associative dynamic. Social bookmarking celebrates informal meaning making by giving it a structure (some degree of means and form). The Internet, librarians tell us, is both an information and communication medium. Social bookmarking combines these two aspects most directly.

Because this is so new a technology and social practice, the part of your research that focuses just on describing --one tag, many uses; one WWW resource, many tags-- aspects of sobomarking will be extremely important and challenging enough.

The annotations with tags are evidence of rhetoric in action. The associations tag sets make for individual bookmarkers are snapshots of understanding and ordering around an idea/topic. The tags are in fact arguments that describe a point of view.

All of which is to say, that by just describing what tags do and how they work and how they communicate information understandings based on collaboration and serendipity, just doing that, which is no small thing, will go a great way to answering your core questions.

nick.carbone at gmail dot com