What makes a good tag?
Yonks ago (that's... like.. you know... quite a long time ago) I suggested to the email@example.com mailing list that we needed an agreed set of tags for labelling UK universities and colleges in Web 2.0 tagging services. I'd raised the issue because we had just agreed with John Kirriemuir that he would create a Flickr pool in order to collect images of UK HE and FE activity in Second Life, as part of the series of snapshots that we are funding, and we wanted a way that people could consistently tag images according to which institution they represented.
I don't recall the details of what I suggested at the time but I think it was to use tags of the form 'universityofbath' (based on the list of names used by the HERO service). Whatever... the specifics aren't important. What happened was that I got deluged by replies offering different and conflicting advice about what makes a good set of tags - from totally unique but not very memorable UCAS codes, thru DNS domain names (bath.ac.uk), to human-readable but ultimately rather long strings such as the form I'd originally suggested (with or without hyphens and/or using camel-case).
Some useful points came out of the discussion, like the fact that unique but incomprehensible tags based on codes of one kind or another aren't very useful because no-one would ever 1) think of searching for them, or 2) remember them. Unfortunately, nothing approaching consensus was reached.
We had a brief but rather similar exchange on Twitter yesterday because Brian Kelly suggested that the JISC Emerge project had got their tag strategy wrong by using 'em0608' for their current online conference, largely (I think) on the basis that Americans might get confused as to whether it meant June 2008 or August 2006. I responded along the lines of, "who cares, a tag isn't meant to be parsed anyway", to which Brian, rightly, responded that parsability and memorability are intertwined.
To cut a long(ish) story short, two things have emerged (excuse the pun) from this exchange:
- firstly, having a conversation in bursts of 140 characters isn't ideal - and is probably annoying for those people not interested in the discussion in the first place, and
- secondly, there is still little consensus about what makes a good tag!
I suggested that tags (particularly in the context of Twitter) need to be relatively short, relatively unique and relatively memorable. But as Brian noted, there is a significant tension between shortness and memorableness (is that a word?). Further, Steven Warburton questioned the value of uniqueness in the context of a relatively short-term forum like Twitter (i.e. it probably doesn't matter too much if your tag gets re-used a year later because the Twitter context has moved on). However, it's important to remember that tags get shared across all kinds of Web 2.0 services (del.icio.us, Flickr, blogs, YouTube, Slideshare and so on) in order that applications like Hashtags and Onetag can pull everything together and that persistence requirements in those other services may be very different than they are in Twitter.
David Harrison asked a practical question concerning an upcoming UCISA conference - what did we think of 'ucisa-usc2008' as a tag? (Though it subsequently turns out that he meant 'ucisa-usc08'.)
I said that I thought it was too long - 14 characters (you need to prefix the tag with a '#' in Twitter) is 10% of the available bandwidth in a Twitter tweet. I think that's too wasteful. I suggested dropping the hyphens and using something like 'ucisausc08' or 'uusc2008' as alternatives but Brian commented that the hyphens were important to improve the tag's 'recitability'.
I'm not totally convinced... though I concede that our use of 'efsym2008' for our symposium earlier this year may have had less impact than it might because people didn't find it easy to remember (either because they didn't know what the 'ef' and 'sym' bits meant or because they got confused about whether it was '2008' or '08').
Ho hum... as I say, and this is basically the whole point of this rather long-winded post, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of agreed best practices around what makes a good tag. And perhaps that's right and proper - we are talking about user-generated content after all and, in the case of the tags for universities, folksonomies are supposed to grow organically rather than be prescribed (though this isn't true for meeting tags which necessarily have to be prescribed by the organisers in advance of the meeting).
FWIW (which probably isn't much given the apparent level of disagreement) my current feeling is that brevity trumps clarity (at least assuming a desire to use the tags in Twitter), which means that 2-digit years are better than 4, hyphens are usually superfluous, and other strings should be kept as short as possible - but, as always, I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in the future.