The Lesson

Personal value precedes network value.

The amazing popularity of the bookmarking site is one of the hallmarks of the current social software renaissance happening on the Web. Along with Flickr, is a poster child of tagging, a simple feature whereby people attach words or phrases to an item. In the case of, those items are bookmarks.

While rose to prominence, much was made of the ability to aggregate the tags that the service’s user population created. The resulting framework, called a folksonomy, promised to redefine web navigation. If users could tag their own bookmarks and navigate to them through a direct tag-based interface, then there was really no need for an overarching, expert-developed taxonomy. In addition, if could aggregate the bookmarks over all users, they could come up with a folksonomy for everybody, based on how the total population actually valued and referred to the content.

One of the hardest problems in web design is to speak the user’s language. With folksonomies and tagging, the web site could be designed with, and evolved by, the user’s own words. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the vast majority of excited technologists (including me) forgot the original reason why people use and enjoy I call this reason the Lesson, and I first posted about it last December in Learning more about Structured Blogging. Since then, that post has become the most referenced post on Bokardo. This post is an attempt to further illustrate the Lesson.

Personal Value Precedes Network Value

The one major idea behind the Lesson is that personal value precedes network value. What this means is that if we are to build networks of value, then each person on the network needs to find value for themselves before they can contribute value to the network. In the case of, people find value saving their personal bookmarks first and foremost. All other usage is secondary.

As people use more, and in order to gain more personal value, they use tags to be able to find their bookmarks later. Tagging isn’t even the primary function of Most of the tagging done on is done secondarily, and for personal use.

The social value of tags on is only a happy side-effect. Even though most of the ink spilled about is about the social value, it’s really not the reason why people use it.

Similar to Google aggregating links that were originally created for taking readers from one document to another, can aggregate tags in order to find out how people value content. If 1,000 people save and tag the same bookmark, for example, that’s a good sign that they find value in it. But to think that people tag so that this information can be aggregated is to give people a trait of altruism they just don’t possess.

Blinded by the Aggregation Light

Unfortunately, the ability to aggregate has blinded many software developers to think that tags are a cure-all to the success of their software. Tags have almost become a requisite feature in new software. I’ve received many emails in which developers try to sell me on the merits of their brand-new software based mostly on the ability of potential users to tag things, as if users inherently enjoy tagging things as a matter of course. Real people, in contrast, tag for their own benefit. And they surely won’t tag if the incentive to do so isn’t clear.

Aggregation, in general, is probably more effective as a second-order feature of software. If we create features just to aggregate them, without providing users with tangible value first, then people simply won’t use the features. My guess is that aggregation technologies which prove most useful will be ones that are added to some activity that users have already started doing without the promise of any aggregation benefits.

Why Tags aren’t like Meta Keywords

Shortly after Yahoo bought Flickr, Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Watch, was dubiously skeptical of tags. He compared them with the meta keyword tag, observing that meta keyword tags have failed miserably on the Web and aren’t recognized by major search engines. He was certainly right: meta keyword tags aren’t useful anymore.

However, tags aren’t like meta keyword tags because of the Lesson. Meta keyword tags provide no personal value whatsoever. All of their value is social. They’re for aggregation engines to find and tell other people about. In other words, they’re for getting attention only. tags, on the other hand, provide personal value each time someone uses them to recall a bookmark.

Danny was right to be skeptical, though. Some tagging initiatives don’t seem to provide much personal value at all. On sites like Amazon and Technorati, who have their own versions of tags, it is not clear what personal value users are getting. On Amazon, we already have multiple wish lists for items we want to remember. On Technorati, the tags seem like a pure-play for aggregation benefit without any real benefits for users. Dave Sifry’s suggestion that “Many bloggers use this (Technorati’s) tagging capability to help get their content found by people who are searching for a particular topic” sounds an awful lot like the value promised by meta keywords. Going further, the Lesson might help us parse Dave’s statistics, especially this one: 47% of blog posts have tags or categories associated with them. If the Lesson is predictive, it would suggest that nearly all of that 47% would be categories that users are applying for their personal value on their blog, rather than tags applied for attention only. Any way to separate out those numbers, Dave?

Working toward Valuable Services

The level of innovation and discussion in and around tagging is phenomenal. There is increasing talk about tagging in intranets, there is Rashmi Sinha’s great piece on why tags are easier than categories, and there is even a Collaborative Web Tagging Workshop at WWW2006 this month. Tagging, it seems, has hit the big time. Everybody wants to know how and why tags work, and the best working example is the site that started it all:

Philipp Keller (who will be speaking about tags at WWW2006) in a post about how to spread the word on tagging, asks “is the tagging revolution stuck?“. This is a common question these days, as the number of services trying to leverage tagging skyrockets.

I say no, tagging isn’t stuck. Just don’t try and make it the primary thing to do. Instead, make sure personal value preceeds network value. Then you’ll have plenty to aggregate.

Additional Reading:

Published: May 2nd, 2006