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I've been thinking more about tagging and the apparent problem so many people on SO seem to have with the concept. The number of times I've had to fix questions tagged visual and studio or sql and server, often for users with 3000+ reputation, defies reason. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

It occurs to me that a lot of the problem is we've been trained by other sites to treat tags differently. Programmers generally know how to do categorization, but that's just not how they look at the tag metaphor on a web site. Sites like flikr and youtube need to also use tags for search indexing, and so they mix the categorization concept with a description concept, resulting in an impossibly fragmented tag inventory.

The solution here, then, is a simple name change — change the name, change the metaphor. I think more people get that labels (as in gmail) are about categorization, and using the term "label" will help them expect to find existing labels and look for the correct ones rather than type whatever pops into their head, as appears to happen so often right now.

I fully expect this to end up status-declined, as this "simple" cosmetic change touches question urls, and that means mvc routes in code, bookmarks, etc. At very least you'd have to leave the old routes around as duplicates for the bookmarks. But I would like to see if it could build up any support and hear others' thoughts on whether this would help.

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How have we been trained to treat tags differently? I'm curious to know what you think about this, because as far as I'm concerned SO uses tags exactly like every site I've ever seen that uses tags. –  XMLbog Mar 8 '10 at 17:52
    
"the apparent problem so many people on SO seem to have with the concept." It is not apparent to me. Please explain further, preferably with examples. –  Adam Davis Mar 8 '10 at 17:57
    
"It occurs to me that a lot of the problem is they've been trained by other sites to treat tags differently." How so? A tag is a tag is a tag. You haven't explained why a programmer would "label" a question any better than they currently "tag" a question. Perhaps you need to define both of those terms - the real definition vs what you perceive programmers define them as - so that we can have a better understanding of what the 'problem' is. –  Adam Davis Mar 8 '10 at 17:59
    
@NIfE @Polly Sites like flikr and youtube (and even hashtags on twitter) have an impossibly large tag inventory. However you want to tag an item, they don't really care. StackOverflow has greater emphasis on sorting questions into the same few tags. The structure is more rigid, or at least it should be. –  Joel Coehoorn Mar 8 '10 at 18:00
    
@Hogan: flagged. –  XMLbog Mar 8 '10 at 18:05
    
@Joel: I don't really see how that's different. If you want people to find your video via tags on Youtube you need to use common tags rather than uncommon ones. The same applies to SO, it's just that we enforce it manually in order to help direct viewers to questions that were poorly tagged. If Youtube, etc allowed retagging by common users I'm sure you'd see the same behaviour. In fact, I know this is the case with a few sites that allow just anybody to set tags. Tags tend to clump together rather than drift apart. –  XMLbog Mar 8 '10 at 18:07
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@Joel - That still doesn't explain why the word "label" is better than "tag" It's a change, sure, but what about this change makes you believe people will improve their tagging? –  Adam Davis Mar 8 '10 at 18:11
    
    
I agree; in fact I just suggested renaming "Tags" to "Categories" or "Category Tags" for exactly the same reason. –  Lawrence Dol Jun 30 '10 at 1:07

5 Answers 5

The problem is not the terminology.

The problem is that SO uses a space as a tag separator, which IMHO does not make any sense. Usually, a comma is used instead, especially since there aren't many (any?) tags that could contain a comma while there are plenty which would use a space.

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I think that the fact we use hyphens instead of underscores is far more confusing than how we use spaces as delimiters. –  Grace Note Jun 29 '10 at 18:47
    
Spaces work as a delimiter so long as there's a visual indication of such. For example, FogBugz uses space-delimited tags but as soon as you press the space bar a visual tag appears: tinyimage.net/image-9072_4C2A3378.jpg. Perhaps SO should adopt a similar feature. –  Paperjam Jun 29 '10 at 18:58
    
Agree that it's part of the problem. But only part - the essence of the problem is that people think of tags more broadly that SOFU uses them. –  Lawrence Dol Jun 30 '10 at 1:13

Meh...

Give users the opportunity to write a descriptive title, and they'll ask, "Plz help!"

Give users the opportunity to write a descriptive question, and they'll ask, "[80 lines of irrelevant code] why doesn't my code work .?"

Give users the opportunity to choose a category, and they'll pick the first one they recognize. Or just the first one in the list.

Give users the opportunity to add labels / tags / whatever and they'll write whatever comes into their head: non-standard abbreviations, synonyms, a copy of their title...

We'll always screw it up somehow. That's why there's editing...

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Give users the opportunity to choose a category, and they'll pick the first one they recognize - this is why I love SOFU tags. In the past I'll be advised to go to a forum to ask a question about Apples, and I'll see forums for Bananas, Oranges, Kiwi Fruits, Pomegranates and Mandarins, but no friggin Apples. SOFU - create your own damn apples! –  Mark Henderson Mar 8 '10 at 20:49

I don't think it matters what they're called.

In a system with (a) any kind of complexity, and (b) the burden of learning the system is placed on each individual user, there are always going to be users who misuse the system to some degree (myself included). That being said, I think users legitimately try to use the system properly -- it's just that they do it in the way they understand it, which isn't necessarily the same way the authors of the system intend.

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Maybe a label should actually be different. A tag would act like tag on flickr, youtube, and twitter (hashtag), but a label would be different. An elevated tag if you will. Something can be tagged as C# (meaning the poster marked it as C#) but when something is labeled as C# you know it is C#.

Not sure how this would work... but here is a quick idea -- users can vote for a tag being correct and with a certain number of votes a tag will upgraded to a label.

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The answer is more voting! "if the only tool you have is a vote, everything starts to look like an election" –  Adam Davis Mar 8 '10 at 18:12
    
@Polly, now that's a good insightful comment –  Lance Roberts Mar 8 '10 at 18:18
    
@Polly, I agree with @Lance : as I said it was a "quick idea". Your point is it is a bad one, I'm inclined to agree. However, I like the idea of validated tags = labels. –  Hogan Mar 8 '10 at 18:22
    
Of course I could just re-tag once I get 500pts. –  Hogan Mar 8 '10 at 18:24
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@Polly and if the only tool you have is a crane? –  Rosinante Jun 29 '10 at 21:50

The problem with these metaphors is that everybody understands them in different ways. Depending on who you ask,

  • tag
  • label
  • category
  • folder
  • section
  • group

may all mean the same thing, or mean n+1 different things. So unless there is substancial evidence that a majority of people use the word (say) "label" for what SO's tags actually are, changing the wording might make the thing clearer for one small group, but at the same time alienate / confuse / aggravate / … a different, possibly larger group.

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