Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why I Hate Tags

Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of tags on the Internet. For those of you who are not, a tag is a keyword or label that is attached to a specific thing on the internet, such as a blog post, a video clip, and so on, generally for the purpose of classification and searching through keywords. Tags originated in the world of blogging and have since spread from there. Not only does Technorati, the blog search engine use tags, but so does photo hosting service Flickr, music web site, and the social bookmarking site

Now I will admit that tags can be useful when it comes to classifying blog entries. They can even be useful with regards to photos and even video clips. Unfortunately, it seems as if tagging has spread to other arenas on the net where it is ill suited. Namely, quite a while back Amazon.Com began using tags. Now I can see how tags can be useful with regards to blog posts, at least when the blog author is the one who assigns the tag to the posts. For instance, if I used tags at all, I might assign the tag "Tags" to this post. This would make it easier for people looking for blog posts on tags to find it. That having been said, tags are not so useful with regards to things other than blog posts, photos, and video clips, especially when you give virtually anyone the ability to assign tags.

This is especially true of the DVDs, books, and CDs sold by Amazon. For instance, I just looked up the classic movie The Long Riders. To me some of the tags assigned to the DVD seem as if they would be very useful in searching for it: "western (it is a Western, after all)." "cole younger (it is about the james/younger gang, after all)," "confederate guerillas (the Jameses and the Youngers served with Confederate bushwhacker Bloody Bill Anderson)," and so on. But other tags assigned to The Long Riders just seem useless. "adventure (while it is an adventure movie of a sort, the term is far too broad to be of any use in a search)" and "0217 (I am not even sure what this has to do with the James/Younger gang, The Long Riders, or anything else)."

At least the tags assigned to The Long Riders (except for "0217," which is an absolute mystery to me) are somewhat accurate. There are other times when the tags assigned to a given object are wildly inaccurate. An example of this is the 2006 edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury published by Gollancz. Among its tags are "science fiction." Now anyone who has read Something Wicked This Way Comes knows that it is definitely not science fiction. Something Wicked This Way Comes centres around a mysterious carnival which comes to a small American town. The carnival seeks to grant those wishes the townsfolk have kept hidden deep in the hearts, but, as might be expected, none of those wishes turn out the way the townsfolk might want them to. It is first and foremost a work of horror, as Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show works its dark magic on the small town. Like the bulk of Bradbury's work, it is also a work of fantasy, in which the ordinary, workaday world comes face to face with the magical and mysterious. One thing it definitely is not, is science fiction. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein defined science fiction as "realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." I would disagree with Heinlein on the part of "future events (science fiction stories can be set in the past as well)." but other than that his definition works for me. Using that definition, I think it is safe to say that Something Wicked This Way Comes is not science fiction. Indeed, although he is often described as such, Ray Bradbury is not a science fiction writer, but a fantasist of the top calibre. He has more in common with Clive Barker and Lord Dunsany than he ever has with Isaac Asimov.

At any rate, it seems to me that many, perhaps most, of the tags created by Amazon.Com users are nearly useless in both classifying things on the web site and in searching for things on the web site. Any science fiction fan searching for "science fiction" in Books on Amazon.Com is probably looking for something along the lines of Larry Niven's Ringworld than Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. A person looking for "adventure" in DVDs might want Gunga Din instead of The Long Riders.

Of course, here I must point out that one does not have to use tags on Amazon.Com. I have never tagged anything there and I have never used tags in any search. I guess at worst, they are simply useless things that just clutter up the page (a prime example being the tag cloud that appears on my Amazon.Com--I wish I could shut it off). That having been said, what irritates me more about Amazon.Com's use of tags is that they even use them to determine one's recommendations (the recommendations of books, DVDs, et. al. Amazon thinks one will be interested in). Now if you are like me and you don't use tags, tags have no bearing on your recommendations at all. That having been said, tags seem to have replaced something which Amazon.Com had called "Favourites." Favourites were one's favourite categories and subcategories of products. Among my Favourites were books, DVDs, and music. Among my favourite subcategories in those categories were fantasy, heavy metal, and so on. Favourites organised one's recommendations easily and made it easy for me to find those books, DVDs, and CDs I might like. Sadly, Amazon.Com did away with Favourites, apparently in favour of the largely useless tags.

Now I realise that there are probably people out there who love tags. There are probably Amazon.Com users who frequently employ them and who think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. I really would not want to see such users denied their tags. What I propose, then, is that Amazon.Com allow users to be able to turn off tags. If you turn off tags, then not only would you not be able to use them, you would not even see them. They would not be cluttering up your pages, nor would they have any bearing on your searches. I also propose that Amazon.Com bring back Favourites, at least for those of us who want them. In this way users could customise their Amazon.Com experience as they see fit. Gods know, I found using Amazon.Com much more enjoyable when they still had Favourites and before they introduced tags.

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