Opinions on the use and value of social tagging



The use of social tagging as a mechanism for enhancing access to information on social networking sites has been widely discussed. This study explores this issue by examining the views of students in two introductory information organization classes on participation in social networks, tag generation and the value of tagging.


Incoming students in information science programs provide researchers with the special opportunity of seeing the development of ideas around the use and value of bibliographic control from the context of views based in existing societal norms. In classes in information organization, these students are taught the approaches that libraries and other information agencies have taken concerning the generation of descriptive practice. They are also confronted with other approaches toward description as they learn about the social networks associated with Web 2.0, both in class and in their home environments. In thinking about the role of social tagging in description, these students are in the almost unique position of seeing the issues “from both sides now”. This study looked into the awareness of social networking sites and social tagging among two groups of information science students, differing by one academic year. It analyzed the content of discussion boards on this topic, looking also at reports on tag generation and the evaluation of tagging as a mechanism for locating content.

Social tagging

Traditional information systems create consistency over the variety of labels associated with concepts and bring together content related to the same information objects by adopting controlled vocabularies. While controlled vocabularies are quite effective in bringing information on a given topic together, it is generally agreed that they have a number of flaws. Users have to know the “preferred term” or they have to know to look up the preferred term in an authority source like a thesaurus if they are to retrieve information on a given concept. Controlled vocabularies often use terminology less current than that used in common speech. The terminology chosen is often quite formal. To overcome these deficiencies, a recent trend in online communities is to use what is sometimes referred to as social tagging. Giving readers the capability of generating “tags” or labels for content, it is believed, provides access to content without the need to learn a complex nomenclature (Peterson, 2006; Hammond et al., 2005).

The benefits of folksonomic “tagging” are hotly debated. The popularity of shared/community information sites such as del.icio.us, flickr, youtube, and technorati has opened a door, allowing people to both create and share digital material and to describe them using their own terminology (Rainie, 2007). While this approach is very popular at this time, a number of papers have isolated and discussed issues around the quality of tags produced in folksonomies (Peterson, 2006; Guy & Tonkin, 2006) and about the long-term viability of such practices (Rosenfeld, 2005).

Tag generation

One aspect of this debate concerns differences among the parties responsible for generating the terminology used to support information access and the intent that each bring to the process of index generation. Rafferty and Hidderley (2007) provide an interesting analysis of index generation that provides insight into this matter. They distinguish expert-led, author-generated, and user-oriented indexing. Expert-led approaches, they suggest, are directed from authoritative sources to a user audience. While the nature of the controlled vocabularies used may privilege certain world views, they also enable the construction of knowledge maps, which themselves can provide pathways through groups of documents. Author-based indexing, they argue, uses terms that are community-based, since the authors themselves are rooted in those communities. However, it focuses on the interpretation of the work as seen by the author, and not necessarily as it is seen by the audience. The third alternative discussed by Rafferty and Hidderley is user-based indexing. A by-product of the move towards social software, social tagging produces metadata characterized by yet another set of features, namely a closer match to the vocabulary of its potential users.

Rafferty and Hidderley's analysis brings to the forefront the issue of the intentionality and directionality of the tag generation process. Expert-led indexing is intended to serve a user audience by regularizing and systematizing access. Author-based indexing's intent is more solipsistic. Its product reflects the world view of the content generator. Social tagging, by its very label, implies that this approach to metadata generation is more community oriented, the word “social” being derived from the Latin “socius” or “friend”. We ask, however, whether or not this true. Is social tagging truly social? Do those who generate tags intend them as a way to communicate with others or do they, too, have a more solipsistic intent? This issue is beginning to be addressed by a number of researchers. Graham and Abbas (2007) studied in situ tagging behavior at an ASIS&T conference poster session to identify issues of tagger motivation. A panel presentation at the same conference (Tonkin et al., 2008) provided a series of views into the use of social tagging in a variety of online community environments. But the question of community influence on tagging behavior is still open. It is one of the topics of interest to this analysis.

Social network use

While teens and young adults have been and continue to be heavy users of the internet and new online technologies, the number of adult internet users has increased greatly over the past ten years. Compared with teens and Generation Y (ages 18-32), Jones and Fox (2009) show that older generations are more likely to use the internet for information seeking and exchange and somewhat less for socializing and entertainment. In a parallel manner, social network sites have also attracted an increasing proportion of adult users. Lenhart (2009) provides data showing that the share of adult users who have profiles on social networking sites has quadrupled over the past four years. Like teens, adults tend to use these sites for personal rather than professional purposes, reaching out to friends and acquaintances. Unlike teens, however, adults are more likely to have privacy concerns and are more likely to restrict access to their content. The students in this study come from both Generation Y and adults above 32. In both study years, 2007 and 2008, the average age of our students was 33, with roughly comparable ranges (2007: 22-59; 2008: 21-54). Their opinions will be of particular interest from this perspective as well.

Data Gathering Methodology

To best gauge the attitudes and usage of social tagging within an information science context, we collected data from students in an introductory Master's level course on information representation and organization taught by the first researcher. Social tagging was discussed in the context of subject description. Data was collected from a required discussion board, timed to take place in the period in which the related topic was introduced in class. Data was collected from two classes on two consecutive Fall terms, 2007 and 2008. The 2007 group consisted of 28 students and the 2008 group consisted of 24, for a total of 52 participants. The students were asked to discuss their experiences and opinions about social tagging using the discussion boards in the course site on Blackboard. The exact assignment read as follows:

“You're asked to discuss your experiences with social tagging on sites like del.icio.us, flickr, youtube or technorati. If you have not tried out this feature of the social networking sites, do you think that people will be able to create useful keywords to help others find information they're interested in on these sites? Consider trying out one of these sites and reporting back on your experience.”

Responses varied in length from a single sentence to paragraphs of multiple sentences. Although each student was required to create two postings to the discussion board for class credit, they were allowed to post as many times as they wished.

Data Analysis

All posts from the discussion boards for both classes were collected. This resulted in 138 posts. In reporting on questions related to the experiences of the individual participants concerning either prior exposure to social networking sites or to tag generation, the unit of analysis was the speaker, with all responses contributing to the correct coding of the individual. For issues related to the evaluation of tagging, the unit of analysis was the individual post. These were labeled by participant {“Speaker”} and the number of the post authored by that participant. For example, the first post by Speaker 1 was labeled Sp1.1; the second post by Speaker 1 was labeled Sp1.2 and so on.

Content analysis was done for each entry to evaluate the posts on various factors such as past experience with social tagging sites and positive or negative feelings towards social tagging. Data was assigned to the categories that follow:

  • 1Those who report prior experience with social networking sites, with or without tagging
  • 2Those who report no experience with social networking sites or who tried these sites for the related class discussion board
  • 3Those who report they generate tags (no attribution as to who the tags are for)
  • 4Those who report that they generate tags for themselves
  • 5Those who report they generate tags for others
  • 6Those of positive/favorable reports on tagging
  • 7Those of “issue”/negative reports about tagging

Each post was read with these criteria in mind and cited accordingly when a subject's remarks seemed to qualify for the criteria. All posts were independently analyzed by both researchers and their codings were compared, differences analyzed, and the resulting decisions reported in this study. If the post did not contain information that supported inclusion in a category grouping (e.g., no information on experience with social networking sites), it was not included in the analysis. If a post contained comments that showed both the benefits of tagging and problems associated with tagging, it was in included in both counts.


Table 1 shows how the number of study participants in each year compared in their prior experience with social networking sites.

Table 1. The relationship between experience with social networking sites and class year.
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The table shows only a small amount of differentiation between the two classes in their reported prior exposure rates to social networking sites, given the differing numbers of students in their respective classes. The proportion of student with prior experience in the 2007 class is 20/28 or.71; the proportion in 2008 is 16/24 or.67.

There were unfortunately, from our perspective, only a small number of reports on the tagging behavior of these students. These are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. The relationship between the targets of tagging behavior and class year.
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While this data is relatively sparse, it does not provide evidence against the hypothesis that tagging is as likely intended for the use of the tagger as it is for the good of the social networking community in which it is used. There is some suggestion that the groups differ in their tendencies to use tags for personal use rather than for their community but there is too little data to support any conclusion. Table 3 shows the distribution of responses that were coded either positively or in favor of tagging compared to the number that discussed issues or problems associated with socially generated tags. Further, it shows the distribution of those responses across the two class years in the study.

Table 3. Reports on the value of tags in a social networking context.
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These data show the greatest difference in the data collected in this study. The 2007 class data shows a predisposition to see the use of social tagging as problematic. By comparison, the 2008 class's comments were almost perfectly balanced between positive and negative reports on the value of social tagging.


This relatively small study provides a window onto the opinions of two sets of incoming information science students who are being introduced to the formal study of bibliographic description. Their backgrounds are relatively comparable–they are approximately the same average age and share a common introduction to the topic (same School, same instructor, same textbook). According to Table 1, they do not differ greatly in the degrees of experience they have had with social networking sites.

They do appear to differ in a substantial way in their attitudes about the benefits of and/or problems with social tagging in the context of social networking sites. The 2007 class was almost three times more likely to report issues or problems with social tags as they were to report favorably on their use. The 2008 class, on the other hand, was almost equally positive and negative about the use of social tagging.

The locus of this effect is unknown. It may be chance variation between these two groups of people. Alternatively, it may be due to the increasing societal visibility of social tagging, as manifest in the growth of use of social networking sites shown in the Lenhard (2009) study. This would be in line with the observed change in focus from self-oriented tags to socially oriented tags that we see in the data in Table 2. If collaborative tagging is to become more broadly engaged in, it could be the result of the growth of positive feelings about its benefits. An analysis of the specific comments in the positive and negative reports may provide greater insight into attitudes towards controlled vocabularies and social tagging. This will be the focus of the next stage of this investigation. Other issues remain open. The intentionality underlying tag generation is of particular interest. However, experience gained in this study suggests that this will require a more direct investigation.