How social media gets users to do cataloging for them

Hi Everyone,

With social media websites like Facebook, YouTube & Flickr gaining ever more popularity online, taking a look at how they organize and keep track of all their data is of special interest to us as Web Developers.  One of the key methods these social media sites use to keep track of their content is with tagging.  Tags represent the key terms that users search for when they search for a video or an image or any piece of content online.  However, with social media sites it is not tagging in traditional sense, because the content is generated by the users themselves, they are also the ones asked the assign their own tags.  So why do social media websites use these kinds of tagging mechanisms?  Why is it important to allow self-generated tags on user content?

Well the answers to websites run into two basic issues one of practicality and that user participation or control over the content they add to a website.  From a practical standpoint the simple fact is that a user creating and uploading their own content will have a much better idea of the kinds of tags that will be relevant to their content.  Once users create the first several tags it then becomes possible for the service to begin suggesting additional tags that it has identified as being somewhat related to those the user initially entered, which helps their content appear under a broader range of searches than it would have otherwise appeared under.

However for all it’s cost effectiveness and opportunities for user engage a folksonomy does poses several weaknesses, as highlighted in this New York Times piece, “grass-roots categorization, by its very nature, is idiosyncratic rather than systematic. [It] sacrifices taxonomic perfection but lowers the barrier to entry. Nobody needs a degree in library science to participate.”*  It’s because of these low entry barriers that the average user will be willing to add their own tags to content.  It makes sense for a social media sites such as YouTube to be willing to accept less accurately user-generated tags on uploaded content because forcing great accuracy would likely mean a more cumbersome user experience when uploading a video; which would probably dissuade large numbers of people from tagging their uploads at all.

So one of the chief weaknesses of using this type of tagging that users generally are pretty lazy when it comes to organizing their information.  This has the possibility of leaving user generate content not adequately tagged so that people will be able to easily find it.  Worse still it also opens up the possibility of completely false and misleading tags being added to content.  This was especially true for a phenomenon that became popularly known as a ‘Rick Roll.’  Where users would be directed to a video on YouTube after being told either by the tags or thumbnail image that the video was about one topic only to be treated in reality to a video of Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give you Up instead.

* Link to Times Article quoted:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/magazine/11ideas1-21.html?_r=0

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