buzz, flock, ui

Wil Wheaton and Tagging

The science fiction child actor everybody loves to hate gave Flock a brief review today. To be fair to Wil, not everybody loves to hate him anymore. In fact, droves of people have enjoyed reading his blog for years, and I remember being impressed, when I first encountered it during my Fark phase a few years ago, that a celebrity had bothered to learn how to code and had written his own blogging software. It seemed so down to earth and cool and dorky in a way that appeals to me. But enough fan-boying. As a little aside in an entry about retooling his web presence, Wil mentioned Flock (along with Performancing and Ecto) as a blogging tool he had tried out. His verdict?

Flock is pretty cool. It’s got a nice editor, and I especially like how it seamlessly integrates Flickr images and del.icio.us bookmarks into your blogging experience. It integrates lots of tools and appears geared toward blogging and anything which involves a tag. If I was all about that sort of thing, I’d be really into flock, but since I’m not, I can’t see myself using it.

And a perfectly reasonable and fair verdict it is on the surface. We’ve known all along that we’re not going to appeal very much yet to the general web user. Of course, part of what we’re doing is trying to change the way people think about and use the web, so we’re hoping to expand our audience over time by improving the way the web works. We can do this in part by helping to showcase the usefulness of things like microformats, tagging, etc.

In that vein, let me posit that the whole tagging thing need not be as scary or as web-2.0-trendy as it sounds. I don’t care about tagging for tagging’s sake, but I do find it to be a useful ad hoc way of categorizing things. If we built some auto-completion into Flock’s favorites tagging UI (and I don’t even mean auto-complete that taps into social networks; just a list of tags I’ve applied to links), it’d be all the more useful and would help me build consistent taxonomies around my favorites without having to rely on my memory (e.g., I can never remember whether I tag things “javascript” or “js”).

From a technical standpoint, using tags isn’t different at all from using categories. In each case, you have a database row tying a taxonomy term to another piece of data. The difference between tags and categories, as far as I can tell, has to do strictly with user interface (some would argue that it requires a different mindset). I find tags in Flock useful not because they’re trendy and web-2.0ish, but because they help me streamline how I manage my favorites. Here’s how:

  • When I’m adding a link, rather than traversing a many-tiered series of nested menus to find a folder, I just type a tag. Adding auto-complete or a clickable list of likely candidates for tags would make this even more useful to me.
  • When I’m looking for a link in the favorites manager, I just type a likely tag in the search widget at the bottom. It almost instantly narrows my list of favorites down to links I’ve applied a given tag (or fragment) to. It also happens to do a full text search and show matching links.

Part of the beauty of this approach is that even though we call the tool the favorites manager, I don’t actually have to do any management of my favorites. I save a link, and I can find it easily without being daunted, after months of browsing, at the prospect of having to navigate through six layers of menus to get to a link that legacy bookmarking systems allow me to categorize exactly one way without duplication of effort. If I’m not inclined to tag my links, I don’t have to, and Flock still provides a full-text search that lets me find relevant content I’ve visted more easily than otherwise. Which means that I don’t have to bother pruning old favorites or finding complex ways of categorizing them hierarchically in order to make it eaiser from a UI standpoint to find them.

So, Wil, if you happen to follow the trackback and read this, you don’t have to be a tagaholic to find Flock’s favorites features useful. If you (plural, generic you) don’t find the features useful, fair enough, but our goal — in spite of any buzz that may circulate about us — has much more to do with making it easier to use the web than with jumping on any bandwagons (though some bandwagons are heading in what we think are good directions). In order to find tagging in Flock useful, you don’t have to know much about tags or web 2.0 or whatever — you just have to see the value in the simple application of labels to links and the easy retrieval of those links later. In other words, you don’t have to be a fanatic about tagging, though it makes sense that our core audience for the time being is composed primarily of those for whom the novelty of tagging is appealing.

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9 thoughts on “Wil Wheaton and Tagging

  1. Pingback: It’s News to Me » Tagging

  2. I find tagging useful on my blog (Ultimate Tag Warrior works really well for WordPress), being able to find entries just by clicking on one of the tags in the tagcloud has been an extension of functionality I never thought I was ever going to really put to use. I’m finding the same kind of extension to functionality with tags and Flock. I no longer have to wonder what I did what “that link” or have to wade through folders looking for it.

  3. If I had an elevator ride to sell Wil on Flock, I would tell him to forget about tagging. I understand Flock is not doing a great job making them useful yet, and maybe still it is not for him. I would first get him to chew on the other features of Flock that he over looked. Some of those features, you have written about previously.

  4. I totally agree, Lloyd. But since Wil mentioned tagging, I thought it appropriate to address it and downplay the value of tagging for tagging’s sake.

  5. Hi, Wil. I definitely didn’t take your comments as an undue criticism. (And without user criticism, how could we ever hope to improve our product anyway?) I was thrilled that you mentioned us and just wanted to springboard off your comments into what I hoped would be a useful post about how tagging needn’t be scary. Not being much of a web 2.0 junkie myself, I like to try to demystify it a bit when I have an opening to do so. Thanks a bunch for the mention and the followup.

  6. Pingback: Welcome Will to the Flock family! at A Fool’s Wisdom

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