A Story About Tags, and Technorati, and Tags

[fr] Une conversation sur Twitter au sujet des tags, de la grande époque de Technorati, et de où on en est maintenant. Ce qu'on a perdu: un "tagspace" commun pour la blogosphère (c'était ce qu'offrait Technorati...).

Yesterday I innocently answered a tweet about Technorati tags from Luis Suarez. This led to an interesting three-way conversation between Luis, Thomas Vander Wal. Ideas got tossed around, and we decided to continue the discussion through our blogs, as if it were 2003 (2001?) all over again. You know, I really miss the old blogging days, sometimes. But more about that in another post.

Now, before I get to the meat, I want to tell you a little about the history of tags and tagging. I was there, you see — and I’d like to tell you what I saw of history unfolding at the time, because it gives some background to the ideas that came up for me while chatting with Luis and Thomas.

(Note that I am absolutely not using the sacred inverted pyramid here. I’m not trying to optimize. I’m taking you for a ride, come along if you wish.)

A long long time ago, when the blogosphere was frisky and bloggers were still strange beasts, Movable Type invented the Trackback.

Trackbacks were exciting. You have to understand that at the time, comments on blogs were barely a couple of years old, and bloggers still had the good habit of carrying on conversations through their blogs, linking to each other’s articles like there was no tomorrow. Trackbacks allowed us bloggers to tell each other we were mentioning each other’s posts without having to “head over there and leave a comment” or rely on the linkee’s obsession with referrer monitoring (all our metrics and stats tools were much more primitive at the time, and we didn’t have Google Alerts).

Some people started sending trackbacks when their posts were simply related to posts on other blogs — an abusive practice, if you ask me, laying the grounds for what was to become trackback spam.

Enter TopicExchange. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I fell in love with it right away. TopicExchange was a site which hosted “channels”, keywords that you could trackback so that your post would appear in a given channel. TopicExchange was, in fact, a somewhat clumsy precursor of tagspaces. The idea was there, but it was built on trackbacks rather than microformats.

Roughly around that same period (of years), delicious started using tags to allow users to classify bookmarks. Flickr followed, and tagging started to take off.

In 2005, Technorati started tracking tags in blog posts it indexed, and the microformat for tagging was born. Days later, I’d released the first WordPress tagging plugin, Bunny’s Technorati Tags. Now, you may not care much about Technorati in 2010, but at the time, it was a Big Thing.

First of all, Technorati were the only ones indexing what they then called the “Live Web” (or was it the “Living Web”, I can’t remember). Forget Twitter, Facebook, and today’s real-time craziness: in 2005, blogs were pretty much the fastest form of publication around. Google Blogsearch didn’t exist. So, bloggers (and blogging software) would ping Technorati each time they published an article, Technorati would crawl their RSS feed and index their content. This meant you could search for stuff in blogs. Technorati indexed links between blog posts, so you could look up the “Technorati Cosmos” for any URL (ie, the collection of blog posts linking to it.)

If you were serious about blogging, you made sure you were in Technorati. And your properly tagged articles would appear on the corresponding Technorati tag page. (See where this meets TopicExchange?)

Second, and this is where in my opinion the Technorati implementation of “let’s group posts from different bloggers about a same topic on a single page somewhere” beats TopicExchange: it’s based on a microformat, technologically much simpler to implement than a trackback. Anybody who could write HTML could add tags. It also meant that other tools or companies could create their own tagspaces and index existing tags — which was not possible with a trackback-based implementation, as trackbacks are “pushed” to one specific recipient.

The blogosphere went wild with tags, and my brain started bubbling on the topic.

TopicExchange died, drowned under trackback spam.

And as far as I’m concerned, Technorati is dead (at least to me), probably drowned or crippled by splogs and tag spam.

Which leads me to express a law which I’ll call “Stephanie Booth’s Law of Death by Spam”, just in case nobody had thought of it before, and it catches on and makes me famous:

Sooner or later, all smart ideas to better connect people or ideas through technology drown in spam, unless the arms race to defeat it is taken seriously enough and given the ressources it needs.

Right, I think you have enough context now, and I can come back to the conversation that kept Luis, Thomas and I occupied for a bit last night. Luis was asking if anybody still cared about Technorati tags, and we drifted off (at least I did) on the Golden Days of Technorati (hence the slightly nostalgic storytelling that makes up the first big chunk of this post).

Clearly, Technorati is not playing the role it used to play for the blogosphere (whatever that is nowadays, the blogosphere I mean, now that every online publication is a “blog”).

There’s Icerocket, which actually does a not-too-bad job of letting you search for stuff over blog posts (check out my ego search and blog search). Actually, as I’m writing this, I’m discovering that their advanced search is pretty neat (though I’m not certain why this query returns nothing).

One issue I see with Icerocket is that you have to actively sign up and include tracking code on your blog — which means that less bloggers will go through the trouble of getting themselves indexed (and less spammers, of course, which is probably the idea, though I did spot a few splogs in my searches above). Another one is that it’s not very visible. Do you bloggers know about it? Have you registered? Does it bring you traffic? Technorati had cosmos and tag links that made it visible on the blogs it indexed (just as I tried to make TopicExchange more visible in my blog when I was using it).

Another more systemic issue is that a “blog” today and a “blog” in 2005 is not the same thing. Well, some are (I hope this one is), but nowadays we have all these big online publications that I call media-blogs: run as businesses, multi-author, revenue-stream… Their quality ranges from cheap content-factory to properly journalistic. Are they still blogs? In 2010, what is a blogger? What kind of blogs do I want to see indexed by a service like Icerocket — and is there some objective way to draw lines, or am I letting my personal bias take over? As you may know, my work around blogger accreditations for LeWeb has led me to ponder the lines between journalist, blogger, other-online-publisher. I don’t have answers yet.

But I digress.

When WordPress finally implemented proper tags, the default tagspace was not Technorati (as it had been with my plugin), but a tagspace local to the WordPress installation. This made sense in some way (probably by that time tag spam on Technorati was already taking its toll) — but we lost something precious in the process: a shared space where separate blogs and blog posts could collide over common topics.

I want that back. But maybe I don’t want a tagspace shared by the whole humungous somethingsphere of 2010. So, how about this?

Let’s imagine a tool/platform which allows a certain number of bloggers to gather together, as a group. You know all about groups, in their various incarnations: Flickr groups, Google groups, Facebook groups, new Facebook groups… What about blogger groups? I could gather a bunch of bloggers I know and like, and who know each other, and who tend to read each other, and we could decide to create a little blogosphere of our own. The group could be public, private, invitation-only, whatever.

And this group would have a shared tagspace.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’d do this with a multi-user WordPress implementation (go to WordPress.com for example: there is a shared tagspace for the blogs there). But here, imagine the bloggers in question already have blogs. Would there be no way to recreate this, independantly of which blogging tools they’re using?

This is similar but not identical to shared spaces like SxDSalon. SxDSalon slurps in all posts with a given tag from a list of bloggers. It’s nice, it works, it’s useful, but it’s not what I’m thinking of.

Planet is a cool tool too, but to my knowledge it only aggregates posts. Maybe we could add a shared tagspace to it?

I look forward to reading what Luis and Thomas will write on their blogs about our conversation. ;-) Blogs are alive! Twitter has not killed them!

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This entry was posted in Thinking and tagged blogging, history, icerocket, tags, technorati, topicexchange. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Story About Tags, and Technorati, and Tags

  1. Tagging the wordpress way is a very handy way to browse content using traversal topics (VS browsing categories). Technorati tags (and Twitter hashtags) were a very handy way to follow a topic realtime through various sources.

    Here are 2 articles I wrote when researching about tags and how they were actually used (in French though): La recherche par tag, complément indissociable de la recherche sur le contenu and La navigation par tags va-t-elle remplacer les catégories

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  3. A couple of things.

    First your spamming rule has been done already unfortunately. http://gapingvoid.com/2007/07/24/hughs-law/

    Second – I have always been puzzled by this desire amongst some folk to label themselves bloggers. Blogs are simply a tool, it is what you do with them that should define the label you attach to yourself (da Vinci did not define himself as a bloke with a paintbrush who was also handy with a chisel). Define what it is you wish to achieve by creating a group of ‘bloggers’ and in doing so you will find out that you are establishing the groundrules for a community which then need not be limited by the technical constraints imposed by the exclusive use of the tool that is a blog (unless of course your attachment to the tool and the way it was used some years ago is the sole purpose of your community – in the same way that there are communities dedicated to the worship of the audio cassette tape). You may then be able to continue to embrace the whole humungous somethingsphere rather than seeking to step off the bus.

  4. Hey Richard, thanks for your comment! Trust Hugh to have come up with the law ;-)

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to step off the bus or anything. But I do regret some sense of community there was amongst some bloggers of old, and that seems to have been lost (or I have lost) in the process. You have a very good point about not focusing overly on the tool. I realise that when I speak of blogging, I’m thinking of sharing thoughts and ideas in a certain way — and that should be what I put forward, rather than the tool itself.

    Good food for thought.

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