Tag! I’m it!

Hosting this blog is not without cost. The direct hosting costs are largely trivial. There is a cost to time, however. It was that investment that made me procrastinate upgrading my blog software (MovableType) from version 3.2 to version 3.3.

Shortly after the new version came out, I did make an attempt to upgrade. Then, as usual, it failed to install for reasons that were mysterious. I did not want to dig into their code or sift through their forums to solve. Last weekend, in an attempt to clear out my inbox, I made one more attempt. After an hour or so of scratching my head I figured out the problem. Suddenly I was running MovableType 3.33.

There are many new features to this upgrade. The most useful is the ability to tag my blog entries. To tag, I must associate relevant words that describe a blog entry. These words are indexed. Once indexed, it allows readers like you to find relevant information across my blog.

Tags are a recent phenomenon, but ideas like it have been tried before. For example, MovableType already supports HTML keywords. I never use them, mainly because search engines ignore them; consequently, they are of no use to my readers. MovableType also supports categorization. I always categorize blog entries. For example, this entry will go into the Technology Category. Categorization though is too broad. Tags are an attempt to allow more refinement. For example, if I discuss Hillary Clinton it will likely end up in one of the Politics categories. However, if I tag “Hillary Clinton” to a blog entry, people who come to my blog who want to read everything I consider relevant about Hillary Clinton can search for entries where I have tagged her name.

There is one problem implementing tags: I have been blogging for nearly four years and none of my entries had been tagged. This means that I have to go back, reread all 580 or so blog entries and enter appropriate tags for each one. The alternative was just to start tagging and forget about tagging previous entries.

The latter idea was attractive, but of course I opted for the former. This is a blog of essays, which means it is primarily a blog of ideas and ordered thoughts. Tags are a natural fit for my kind of blog. So of course I have been busy tagging my entries during my limited spare time.

Tagging remains a work in progress, but you can see the results. Next to the search form on the left panel I added a link that will take you to my tag index. Click on a tag link and you can easily read all blog entries for that particular tag.

I discovered two issues with tagging that might not be obvious. One is that there are no real criteria for proper tagging. Tagging seems to have been invented in response to the inherent difficulty of finding relevant content on the web. Tagging lets you sort of, but not completely do this job. This is because it relies on the person who is tagging to decide which tags are relevant. Most of doing tagging have no training in taxonomy.

Another issue is that it is hard to know which tags to use. Assign too specific a tag to an entry and sifting through tags becomes a real problem. Take for example, a movie review. For my entry on Million Dollar Baby, should I tag Clint Eastwood? What about Hilary Swank? There are no limits to the number of tags that I can assign to an entry. How many tags for an entry constitute too many? Another approach is to limit the entry to the single tag of Movies. Where does one draw the line? How am I supposed to know what tags others will consider to be relevant?

I see tagging as a necessary bump on the road toward a truly semantic web. Just as Windows 95 was a vast improvement over Windows 3.1, it still was flaky, buggy and confusing, just less so than Windows 3.1. Yet it was a necessary step in the evolution of Windows and it still ran programs written for Windows 3.1. Similarly, HTML is not going to go away, but it does slowly evolve over time. Perhaps tagging entries is the next logical step toward finding relevant content on the web.

Tagging will definitely help me find entries on a particular topic. But will it help the casual web surfer? Only time will tell. It is unlikely though that we think in similar ways. Consequently, I could choose different terms to categorize my entries than you would. I do know is that it is time consuming to go and tag over five hundred entries. So far I have completed 2005 to the present. I have about sixty percent of my blog entries left to tag.

There are other new features in MovableType 3.3 that I will likely use in time. Drag and drop templates and widgets are now available. Actually templates have been around in MovableType for a long time, but you still had to know HTML and study the MovableType template tag library to be creative with them. In other words, you had to be a bit of a geek. The drag and drop interface should make it easier for me to maintain the presentation of this site without writing HTML.

One thing is worse as a result of upgrading: comment spam. I don’t know why but spam that used to get sent directly to my junk folder now makes it as a comment for review. I have changed the spam threshold, but so far it has made little difference.

I hope you find the tagging feature useful.