Frank Mitchell

Filtering tagged spaces

Word to the hurried

If you don’t want to read this entire essay to figure out what I was thinking, just play with the menu on your right. Click a few things, and watch the tool-tips that pop up when you hover over a word.

The implementation should explain itself.

Buried in a sea of tags

As applications like Furl, Flickr, and del.icio.us become more popular, so does the concept of tagging information. But problems arise when we have too many tags. I’ve only been using del.icio.us for a short while, but I’ve already got 50+ different tags for my bookmarks. Mr. Vander Wal’s been using it longer, and he’s got 250+ tags. That’s way too many tags to be useful.

So what do we do about it?

Well, we really have three solutions:

  1. account for human error
  2. reduce tags to their most basic morphemes
  3. equate like tags

First, I think we need to account for the fact that no one’s perfect and people are going to misspell stuff when they tag it. So our software has to be aware that “folkonomy” and “folksonomy” are the same word. A fuzzy search, like agrep, would probably work. However, a livesearch option might work better. If tags were auto-completed for us as we typed, it would reduce the possibility of misspelled tags.

Second, we need to shorten our tags so they just convey the concept we want conveyed and nothing else. The word “cat” is one morpheme. The word “cats” is two: “cat” and ’s'. The ’s' denotes plurality, but do we really need plurality when we’re searching a tagged space? Do we really care if we see one cat or multiple cats? Probably not. It doesn’t matter whether we choose to use “cat” or “cats”, so long as we’re consistent within our personal information space.

Finally, our software needs to understand that “km” and “knowledge management” are the same tag. One is just an abbreviation for the other. Likewise, “ny” is “new york” and “newyork”.

The beauty of these three solutions is that they can each be represented the same way in code.

folkonomy = folksonomy
cat = cats
km = "knowledge management"

It’s a solution that both humans and computers can immediately understand, and more importantly, that humans can easily interact with and change as needed.

Shrinking the number of tags viewable

But even if we account for misspellings, redundant tags, and acronyms, we’re going to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tags available. So what if we filtered the number of tags shown?

Let the user pick a tag they want to use as a filter. Now the only tags available to them should be ones that relate to the tag they just picked. They shouldn’t be able to select the tags “writing” and “deserts” if there are no items in the system that match that combination.

We only need to show the user the information that’s useful to them, and we can guess what that information’s going to be based on the user’s previous actions.

Ninety-percent is good enough

But what do we do about the first tag picked? We obviously don’t want to show the user every possible tag. Having to pick from a list of 100+ tags is going to drive them nuts.

Instead, let’s filter tags based on their percent contribution to the information space.

If a tag has been applied to a certain percentage of items, it’s obviously significant. What that percentage is, of course, depends on the system and the content. But because it will scale as the system grows and the number of items in it increases, the initial tag list should always reflect the most “popular” tags and thus the majority of the items available.

Because there will be an overlapping of tags between items, we’re almost guaranteed that there will be a path from a starting tag to any item in our system. Of course, our algorithm could be refined to ensure that was the case. Something along the lines of: “pick the smallest number of tags that include all items in the information space”.

Either way you cut it, the user still sees a large piece of the pie without being overwhelmed by the fact that there are fifty different ingredients in it.

A real world example

The menu on the right implements the kind of system described above. Go ahed and play with it. Clicking a tag selects it as a filter. Clicking that same tag again deselects it. Once a tag(s) has been clicked, the only tags that are clickable are the ones that relate to the selected tag(s).

And of course, the initial list of tags is based on percent contribution. If a tag’s been applied to more than 5% of the writings on this site, than it’s considered significant enough to be on that initial menu.

It ends up being a lot easier to use than it is to explain in words, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.