Categories and Tags

by F.

I’m glad the meme of “the tag” is circulating widely in the ideosphere, thanks in part, I imagine, to Del.icio.us, WordPress, Spotlight (in OS X), and similar stuff. Tags are just so cool!

I mean, I like categories as much as the next person with too much free time on his hands. But categories have always been around. Dictionaries use categories–A-words, B-words, C-words, and so on—and so do Encyclopedias. You put something in a category and it can’t go into another. Categories are disjunctive—they are strictly “or,” usually. Categories are like buckets.

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And what I don’t like about buckets is that I have to choose which bucket into which something should go. But tags… Ah, tags can be attached across categories, across buckets. I can reach into that bucket and stick a tag on an object, then reach into another bucket and put the same tag on another object. And then I can search for the tags. Tags are not disjunctive. A thing can have as many tags as it wants. The tag shortens search time.

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With both categories and tags, you have two powerful ways to organize information, and they are complementary. But when to use which? Here’s a good summary of the different uses, from Asymptomatic:

For instance, say I’m talking about a particular clothing designer on my blog, such as Donatella Versace. I may have a post about a party that I went to at which I met her, and that could be categorized under “Designers”. But I may have bought a new outfit from her brand, and that would be filed in the category “Clothing”. Both posts would be tagged “Donatella Versace”.

If I want to read posts about clothing, I choose the “Clothing” category. Likewise with “Designers”. If I want any post that had to do with Donatella Versace, I can find those posts in her tag without creating a whole category just for her. That’s the first advantage of using tags and categories – The organization of my site is controlled by categories not by tags.

It feels to me, subjectively, like these two ways of storing information for later retrieval use different “frames” or conceptual schemes. But that an empirical question about which I’m not qualified to say anything intelligent.

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