Let us begin with a description of tagging as it was back then, when it was the foundation of “social bookmarking” sites like del.icio.us, picture sharing services like Flickr, and most of the blogosphere.
(Can I even use the term “blogosphere” in 2019?) In their article “The Informational Value of Social Networks,” the business scholars Hyoryung Nam and P.K. Kannan explain that:
Social tagging is a way for online users to categorize and share web content. Within a social tagging system, users describe and categorize web content with a set of their own keywords, called “tags,” and diverse content is searched and shared using these tags. Because tags generated by individual users also help other users search and organize content, the collections of individually generated tags are called “social tags.”
The concept of user-selected tags that classify existent material will be familiar to Twitter and Instagram users, who do the same thing with hashtags on a regular basis. But, because to an increasingly obscure technology known as RSS, tags had a far more particular significance in 2005. (Really Simple Syndication).
If you’re old and nerdy enough to remember Google Reader, you’re familiar with RSS: It’s the web standard that converts material into machine-readable form, allowing it to magically transfer from your friend’s blog or the New York Times website to a “newsreader” (such as the now-defunct Google Reader) for your convenience. RSS has been the subject of several eloquent eulogies in recent years, yet it is still widely available on the internet—in part because WordPress blogs integrate RSS feeds by default.
However, RSS was once crucial to how people received material online, and tagging was a huge part of it. It’s easy to overlook the five years that passed between the growth of user-generated content and the widespread acceptance of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Ordinary people were suddenly able to develop and maintain our own websites without any programming experience during those years. That is what revolutionized blogging.
But, in the absence of a one-stop shop for accessing all of the most relevant and entertaining stuff, it seemed simpler to write your own blog articles than to locate someone else’s. This is where RSS and tagging come into play. “Most of these Web logs are RSS-enabled, which means newsreader software can be set to bring to your desktop things of interest picked up from these sites based on keywords,” legal writer Jason Krause said in his 2003 ABA Journal piece “Netting Information.”
Those “keywords” were tags: subject matter labels that a blog’s author may apply as part of posting a post, or by some enthusiastic user who discovered that article and saved it as a del.icio.us bookmark, so that they and others might find it later. In any case, interested readers will be able to discover the post. I put up my own newsreader to display me every blog post uploaded to del.icio.us with the tag nptech (for “non-profit technology”), and I also utilized tag-based feeds to follow a selection of relevant blog postings from my favorite writers.
Tags might also be utilized in more imaginative ways. We often utilized tag-based RSS feeds to bring relevant material into a website while we were establishing online communities for non-profit clients. By utilizing an RSS “aggregator” to bring in all the newest blog posts and bookmarks that contained a specified tag, it was simple to establish a website with heaps of relevant news and links on a given topic. (Of course, this may backfire: I previously built up a client site to expose news about communities of practice by bringing in articles with the term “COP.”) Instead of communities of practice, they created a website filled with police-fetishizing pornography.)