Tagging and Searching: How transparent do you want to be?

This note captures some thoughts in progress, feel free to chip in with your comments…

Here’s a feature wish list for link tagging:

  • Private-only links – only I can see them at all
  • Group-only links – only members of the group can see them
  • Group-only tags – only members of the group can see my application of a set of tags
  • Unattributed links – link counts and tags are visible to the public, but not the contributor or comments

Tagged bookmarking services such as del.icio.us allow individuals to save and organize their own collection of web links, along with user-defined short descriptions and tags. This is already convenient for the individual user, but the interesting part comes from being able to search the entire universe of saved bookmarks by user-defined tags as an alternative or adjunct to conventional search engines.

Bits of collective wisdom embodied in a community can be captured through aggregating user actions representing their attention, i.e. the click streams, bookmarks, tags, and other incremental choices that are incidental to whatever they happened to be doing online. The result of a tag search are typically much smaller, but are often more focused or topically relevant than a search on Google or Yahoo.

It’s also interesting to browse the bookmarks of other people who have tagged or saved similar items. To some extent the bookmark and tag collection can be treated as a proxy for that person’s set of interests and attention.

In a similar fashion, clicking on a link (or actually purchasing an item), can be treated as a indication of interest. This is part of what makes Google Adsense, Yahoo Publisher Network, and Amazon’s Recommendations work. The individual decisions are incidental to any one person’s experience, and taken on their own have little value, but can be combined to form information sets which are mutually beneficial to the individual and the aggregator. Web 2.0 thrives on the sharing of “privately useless but socially valuable” information, the contribution of individuals toward a shared good.

In the case of bookmarking services, the exchange of values is: I get a convenient way to save my links, and del.icio.us gets my link and tag data to be shared with other users

One problem I run into regularly is that everything is public on del.icio.us. For most links I add, I am happy to share them, along with the fact that I looked at them, cared to save it, and any comments and tags I might add. Del.icio.us starts out with the assumption that everyone who bookmarked something there would want to share. As I use it more regularly, though, I sometimes find situations where I want to save something, but not necessarily in public. Typically either

      a) don’t want to make the URL visible to the public, or
      b) don’t mind sharing the link, but don’t want to leave a detailed trail open to the public.

The first case, in which I’d like to save a link for my private use, is arguably just private information and shouldn’t actually be in a “social bookmarks” system to begin with. However, there is a social variant of the private link, which is when I’d like to share my link data with a group, but not all users. This might be people such as members of a project team, or family or friends. It’s analogous to the various photo sharing models, in which photos are typically shared to the public, or with varying systems of restrictions.

The second case, in which I’m willing to share my link data, but would like to do so without attribution, is interesting. In thinking about my link bookmarking, I find that I’m actually willing to share my link, and possibly my tag and comment data, but don’t want to have someone browse my bookmark list and find the aggregated collection there, as it probably introduces too much transparency into what I’m working on. At some point in time, it’s also likely that I would be happy to make the link data fully visible, tags, comments, and all, perhaps after some project or activity is completed and the presence of that information is no longer as sensitive.

The feature wish list above would address some of the not-quite-public link data problems, while continuing to accrete community contributed data. In the meantime, I’m still accumulating links back behind the firewall.

Another useful change to existing systems would be to aggregate tag or search results based on a selected set of users to improve relevance. This is along the lines of Memeorandum, which uses a selected set of more-authoritative blogs as a starting point to gauge relevance of blog posts. In the tagged search case, it would be interesting if I could select a number of people as “better” or “more relevant” at generating useful links, and return search results with ranking biased toward search nodes that were in the neighborhood of links that were tagged by my preferred community of taggers.

It’s possible to subscribe to specific tags or users on del.icio.us, but what I had in mind was more like being able to tag the users as “favorites” or by topic and then rank my search results based on their link and tag neighborhoods. I don’t actually want to look at all of their bookmarks all the time.

Something similar might also work with search result page clickthroughs. These sorts of approaches seem attractive, but also seem too messy to scale very well.

Unattributed links may be too vulnerable to spamming to be useful. One possible fix could be to filter unattributed links based on the authority of the source, without disclosing the source to the public.

I was at the Techcrunch meetup last night, didn’t have a chance to talk with the del.icio.us folks who were apparently around somewhere, but Ofer Ben-Shachar from Raw Sugar did mention that they were looking at providing some sort of group-only access option for their tagging system.

A lot of this could be hacked onto the existing systems to solve the end user problem easily, but some of the initial approaches that come to mind start to break the social value creation, and I think those could be preserved while making better provisions for “private” or “group” restrictions by working on the platform side.

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