How Tagging Solves the Problem of the Physical World

This article was written for Education Technology Solutions magazine, but I’ve also republished it here, because I can.

One of the unavoidable buzzwords of Web 2.0 is the term “tag”.  Everywhere you look online you come across the term, and everything from photos to news articles to blogposts are getting “tagged”.

But what exactly are “tags” and why are they such a big deal these days? To understand the importance of tagging, first let’s consider the problem that tagging sets out to solve.

There was a time when everything in our lives existed only in the physical world.  Books sat on shelves. Photos were in photo albums. Music was stored on CDs. Life was simple.  If you wanted to find that photo of your sister-in-law Wendy wearing a silly hat at last year’s family Christmas party you simply went to the family photo album and flicked through the pages till you found it.  The photo was a real physical object that existed in one real physical location.

Storing a photo in a family photo album seems pretty obvious, but the problem is that this method of storing, finding and accessing an object does not scale well. If we had to find that one photo from a room full of photo albums the problem becomes a little trickier. The ability to quickly find something becomes exponentially more difficult as the size of the collection of objects increases, and also as the object becomes more miscellaneous.

For example, have you ever wandered the aisles of a supermarket trying to find a particular item, only to discover that it was located in a completely different section to the one you expected it to be in?  The more obvious items are easy – milk is in the diary section, steak is in the meat section and frozen beans are in the frozen vegetable section of the freezer.  Easy. But as the item gets more unusual or miscellaneous, it gets harder to know just where the supermarket has cataloged it on their shelves.  We expect to find tinned fruit salad in the canned goods section of the supermarket, but if you like to put fruit salad on your breakfast cereal it would also be handy to have it located in the cereal aisle, in fact it might even boost sales of the tinned fruit.  Both of these locations actually make sense, although the people responsible for stacking the supermarket shelves ultimately have to make a decision and put it in only one location.

Why don’t they just put items in every location where it makes sense?  Why not put items in multiple places, making it easier for people to find them no matter where they look?

Of course, the answer is due to the physical limitations of the world we live in.  Supermarkets simply don’t have the physical space to put items in multiple locations. Even if they did, trying to shop in a store that had lots of products in lots of places would end up as a confusing mess.  The idea makes sense, but it doesn’t really work very well in the physical world we live in.  In the physical world these limitations force us to make decisions about the “best” location for every real object.

In an digital world, these limitations of physical objects don’t exist.

Take bookmarking for example. When you browse the Web you often find useful websites that you may want to revisit again, and all web browsing software offers the ability to “bookmark” or “favorite” these sites to make them easy to get back to.  We typically find an interesting website, click the Bookmark menu and choose “Save as Bookmark”… when we want to go back to that webpage, we look through our list of bookmarks and select the one we want from that list

As our collection of bookmarks grows into a long random list most of us eventually work out that we need to organise them somehow, so we start putting our bookmarks into collection, or folders.  Sites that are personal might go into a folder called “Personal” while sites that are useful for work are dropped into a folder called “Work”. Again, as your collection grows you’ll probably find that you need to be more specific, so you end up with a collection of folders designated with names like “IWB Resources”, “Maths Resources” or “Games”.  You can keep adding folders, bookmarking new websites into existing folders or adding more folders if appropriate ones don’t yet exist. Things are nicely organised now, right?

Sort of.

What happens when you find a really good Maths game resource that works well on an IWB? Do you put it in the IWB Resources folder, the Maths resources folder or the Games folder? The truth is, it makes sense to put it in all of these.  You could always bookmark it three times, once in each folder, but as your collection grows, you realise that this could get pretty unwieldy and complicated.  You could just make a decision and put it in one folder only, but unless you remember which one it went into, you may never find it when you need it. You are now facing the same problem as the supermarket shelf stackers; you have an object – in this case a website – that makes sense in more than one place, but to put it in multiple locations is just going to be confusing and hard to maintain.

The solution is to use tags.  Tags are like keywords that get attached to a resource and used as search terms when you want to retrieve it.  A resource can have as many tags as you like, in fact the more tags the better.  It’s a little bit like saving the resource in multiple locations, except instead of having to actually place it in all those locations, the tags simply create an association with those locations.
Tagging works because the tagged objects are digital, not physical. In the digital world, things don’t ever really “exist” anywhere, so having them “exist” in multiple locations becomes a non-issue. A search for all the websites tagged with the word “maths” will generate a list of every website with the tag “maths” attached to it. The search doesn’t care where each website is physically located.  The only thing that matters is that every website has the keyword – or tag – “maths” attached to it.

The fact that the same site might be both an IWB resource and also a game is largely irrelevant.  If a tag search was done for websites tagged with the word “game”, then the IWB-based maths game website would still be in the list.  The beauty of tags is that they allow resources to be cataloged in any ways that make sense.  A decision does not need to be made about the best way to catalog an item, because it can be cataloged in any and every way that makes sense.

In a digital world, photos that are tagged with keywords can be easily retrieved from a huge collection just by looking for one or more keywords. So, if that photo of your sister-in-law was tagged with words like “christmas”, “sillyhat” and “wendy”, then any of these search terms would find the photos.  Someone searching for the word “christmas” would find it, along with every other photo in the collection tagged with the word “christmas”.  Searching with the term “wendy” would find all the photos of Wendy, and a search using “sillyhat” would find any photo tagged with that term, regardless of who was wearing the silly hat.  To find the specific photo you were after, a search using several of these tags would quickly narrow down the search to photos of Wendy, at Christmas, wearing a silly hat. Each tag acts like a filter to only show the photos that match the criteria.

Tagging works because computers are really good at quickly searching through massive amounts of data. Getting computers to find things is pretty easy, but tagging adds the necessary “hooks” that the search can latch onto. Without these tags attached to each resource, computers find it difficult to link each resource to the ideas that you wish to associate with them.  The computer might be able to find things quickly, but tagging helps it know how those things relate to YOU. By adding tags to things, you build a collection of metadata around each object that makes it meaningful to you.  It lets you associate those objects to ideas that make personal sense to you.  And as you tag more and more resources, patterns start to emerge that make it even easier to see the semantic nature of that information, further helping you make sense of it.

Tagging is everywhere on the web however if you are new to the idea and want to see tagging in action, two great place to start are for web bookmarks, and for digital photography. Searching these sites using tags is a nice easy way to see the real value of tagging as a way to organise massive amounts of information in a digital world.

For more detailed information about tagging and how to use it effectively, take a look a my K12 Online presentation entitled “I Like Delicious Things” at

I Like Delicious Things from Chris Betcher on Vimeo.

Image: ‘Symmetry

Making your photos worth 1000 words

This is a joint post between Sue Waters and myself about integrating Flickr with Picasa, and has been cross posted on each of our blogs.

Let’s start with a little background on this post’s origin

After spending some time yesterday migrating Linda’s entire photo collection (well, most of it… did I mention that regular backup is very important?) into Google’s Picasa photo management application and then giving her a bit of a tutorial in how to use it tonight, she asked the next obvious question… how do I put some of these photos onto Flickr? A good question. After all, Flickr is without a doubt the best online photo sharing website around. With amazing tools and options, an incredible online community for sharing and learning from each other, and a huge array of APIs that enable Flickr to work with a range of different online and offline services, the decision to use Flickr as your online photo storage tool of choice is a bit of a no-brainer.

However, on the desktop it’s a different story. Flickr is purely a Web2.0 service, and there is no local desktop component offered with it. This means that while Flickr is wonderful at managing your photos online, when it comes to dealing with the photos stored on your hard drive the only real options you have is whatever tools are already on your computer. If you have a Mac, iPhoto does a great job of photo management. It’s free and comes with every Mac. If you are more serious you can always look at Adobe’s Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture, but these are quite expensive applications. On the Windows side, there are probably dozens of “photo management” applications but most of them are pretty awful, and some are also expensive. Most people just settle for managing their photos directly in Windows Explorer which is an average solution at best.

Using Picasa for your offline photo management

Enter Picasa from Google. Picasa is a wonderful free piece of photo management software and lets you sort, arrange, adjust, crop, rename and generally manage your photos on your computer. It really is an incredibly sophisticated yet simple tool for photographers and the price tag can’t be beaten…. you can’t do much better than free. It is available for Windows only, which makes perfect sense since it essentially does most of what iPhoto already does on the Mac. As well as the desktop app, there is also a “Flickr-like” online photo service from Google called Picasaweb. I say “Flickr-like”, because although it lets you store your photos online it lacks the same community and API sharing that makes Flickr so compelling. If you’re serious about photos online Picasaweb could be a little disappointing. However, being from the Google stable of products, there is some common functionality for exporting photos directly from Picasa on your computer to Picasaweb on the net, which is a nice touch.

The trouble is that while Picasa may be an obvious best choice for local photo management, Flickr is the obvious best choice for online photo management. It would be nice to have the option to manage your photos locally with Picasa and then send your best shots up to Flickr to share with the world. Nice, except that Picasa is owned by Google and Flickr is owned by Yahoo!, and when companies are in direct head to head battle like Yahoo! and Google are, the last thing you want to do is anything that promotes your competition. This is unfortunate, since the losers in that battle are you and I, the consumers. We just want to manage our photos using the two tools we like, but it’s not as quite as straightforward as that.

Connecting via Twitter

Talk about synchronicity. As I was pondering this question tonight, the exact same question floated through my Twitter feed. Mrs_Banjer , sujokat and Sue (dswaters) were discussing the very same issue – how to manage your photos on and offline, what service to use, how to integrate them, and essentially they were tweeting on the very same things I was thinking about. One thing led to another, so via Twitter we discussed, chatted, talked and shared links. We pontificated on the pros and cons of Flickr versus Picasa. This is just one example of the power of an always-on personal learning network. Eventually though, I felt I needed to clarify a point in the discussion so rather than overTweet to the world, I Skyped Sue Waters in Perth and chatted about it directly. While we were talking a tweet came through from sujokat asking “someone do a blog on this please this is fabulous but all too quick for me to take it all in”. Sue and I decided that we’d do that… write a post about the pros and cons of Picasa and Flickr, but we’d do it as a joint post. So this is being written in Google Docs and is a collaborative effort between Sue and I… over to you Sue.

Now for My Thoughts On Picasa vs Flickr

Getting photos off the Camera

One of the best aspects of Twitter connectivity is the challenging of your thoughts, beliefs and making you really think; often about issues you had not considered. This was definitely the case with Picasa vs Flickr. I have rarely used Picasa as Window Explorer and Picture Manager have been adequate for my needs but really into Flickr. In all fairness to Picasa more likely that I have not spent enough time exploring the virtues of Picasa — it did take me 12 months to realise the benefits of Flickr. So my homework for the next few days is to throughly road test Picasa and report back to ensure I have done my usual through research.

It is definitely benefical to import photos from your camera directly into Picasa because it means you don’t import multiple copies of the same photo.

Uploading to Flickr

For Mac users, there are several options for getting photos to Flickr. As iPhoto is a standard application found on every Mac it is a much simpler proposition for developers to create APIs that hook directly between iPhoto and Flickr, so there tends to be a number of uploading tools available, the best known of which is Flickr Uploadr. As well as the Flickr Uploader, there are free tools like FFXporter that plug directly into iPhotos Export option to offer direct Flickr integration. Another option is to use Flock as your web broswer… Flock has Flickr uploading tools built right in.


For Windows users who like Picasa as their photo management tool, uploading images to Flickr from Picasa is also a relatively simple process, even if not quite as obvious or integrated as that enjoyed by Mac users. Just download and install Flickr Uploadr on your desktop, open the Flickr Uploader and Picasa windows alongside each other, then drag and drop the images from Picasa library onto the Flickr Uploader. Simple!

Final Thoughts

Also worth checking out David Jake’s thorough information on Flickr (thanks sukojat for the link) and Philip Nichols’s guide to Picasa.

Besides learning a lot more about Picasa it has been amazing collaborating with Sue to write a post together; using Google Documents, Twitter and Skype.

Sue and I would love to learn more about how you manage your photos.

What are your thoughts? Do you use an offline photo management software? What features do you like about the software you use? Do you share your photos online at Flickr or do you use another photosharing website? And if so, which one and why?

Please take this opportunity to drop past Sue’s post and leave some tips for her as well.