Tag Teams

Social-search programs like Flickr and del.icio.us guide your Web browsing toward places you probably want to go.

Millions of people use and rely on “social search” systems. Millions more are hazy about what such systems are and why they might matter. That can change!

Social search is one more way to add subjective, human judgment to the process of finding information on the Internet. You can see why this is useful if you consider the experience of using search systems that lack the human element. Even the best tools for finding data on your own computer’s hard drive (like X1, my favorite for PCs, available free at X1.com or, in a different and to me slightly less useful form, from Yahoo) tend to be all-or-nothing operations. If you remember the exact name or keyword in a given document, and either spell it correctly or misspell it in a way that matches what’s in your files, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you won’t. And if your keyword appears in too many files or e-mails, you’ll have to sort through a flood of results.

In the Internet’s early days, all searches operated on the same mechanistic, keyword-only principle. Searching gained wide popularity only when, starting mainly with Google, it became both fast and relatively smart. In subtly different ways, Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and other leading search engines apply formulas to figure out, from the few words you type into a search box, what you’re really looking for, and return a ranked listing of pages likely to match that request. The subtleties of these formulas constitute the companies’ trade secrets, but in one way or another all attempt to detect and use the signals by which page creators indicate the meaning and importance of what is on a Web page. For instance, words that a site’s designer has set in boldface or used in section titles might get more weight than those in ordinary text, and the other sites linked to a page might indicate whether its references to “China” are more likely to concern crockery or a country.

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You're It
The author's tagging-progam recommendations.

Social search is a further step in the same direction. The idea is to rely on cues not just from a site’s creator but also from the people who have read and reacted to it, and the cues come mainly from something anyone viewing a site can do: “tag” it with a label, a category, a reminder, or another note that will tell you and other viewers what makes the site interesting.

“Tagging is the very least-effort way to organize things,” I was told by Joshua Schachter, who five years ago designed a site now called del.icio.us, to keep track of interesting Web sites he had seen. Note that its full address is del.icio.us—no .com or .org suffix. When Web sites ending in .us were opened for registration several years ago, Schachter locked down many of them ending in icio.us, because he had calculated that a very large number of “real” words ended with those letters. After del.icio.us had become by far the most popular site of its kind, Schachter sold it last year to Yahoo, for which he now works.

“The objective in saving things is to be able to get them again, not to get tied up building a structure,” he said. “Even people who try very hard to keep all their stuff organized end up with a nice hierarchy of folders—and a whole lot of uncategorized stuff at the top level. Tagging is the way to organize the stuff you don’t have time to organize.”

Here’s how it works: At del.icio.us and similar sites, virtually all of them free, each user creates an account, with user name and password. Most browsers can be configured to log you on automatically whenever you connect to the Internet—and to add a small button or icon to your browser’s task bar. Suppose you are thinking about a vacation and come across a blog entry about the best hotels in Venice. You click the button labeled “post to del.icio.us” for that site, or for another like it, “Mark in Ma.gnolia” (s.igh), and a screen comes up asking how you’d like to categorize, or tag, the page you’ve just seen. You type in as many terms or phrases as you think apply to the site—Italy, vacation, Italian vacation, must-read—plus any extra reminder or description you’d like to save. You click again, and del.icio.us stores the site’s address along with its tags. (Ma.gnolia and some others store a snapshot of the site’s contents, which is useful in case the saved Web address later goes bad.) The next site that catches your eye might have a set of statistics, or a recipe. You save those too, with appropriate tags.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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