learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

About Learning.Now

Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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It’s All About the Tags

I’ve gotten a number of questions from people over the last week about how I pulled together all of the content that’s on display at my website, Hurricanes08.org. It’s easier than it looks - and it’s all about the tags.

It’s been awhile since I’ve talked about tagging, so let’s start with a quick overview. If you’ve ever browsed YouTube for videos or Flickr for photos, for example, there’s a chance you may have noticed that some of the stuff you’ve found also displays related keywords. For example, this YouTube video of mine about butterflies also shows a list of keywords like “butterflies” and “Maryland,” because that’s where I shot the video. Each one of those words is a tag, and it’s useful for a number of reasons. For one thing, it gives users a sense a summary of the key points related to the content that’s been uploaded. It also helps search engines know when to display your content in search results. But to me, the most important thing tags do is to associate your content with other people’s content. So when a person goes to Flickr and looks for the tag “tajmahal,” they’ll see an enormous collection of content related to that topic. Chances are, the vast majority of people who used that tag for their photos have never met each other, but their photos become connected because they all decided that the tag captured some meaning for their photos.

Of course, tags aren’t 100% reliable; for example, it’s quite possible that a person might tag a photo of a casino and tag it tajmahal, so it gets added to a collection of photos that are actually about the famous Taj Mahal in India. Because of this, it’s not unusual for people to create a unique tag and encourage their peers to use it. So when you take a look at the photos for the tag necc2008, you’re much more likely to see content relevant to the 2008 NECC conference, in contrast to content that has just been tagged “conference” or something similarly generic.

So when you look at a lot of the content that appears at the Hurricane Information Center, you’re actually seeing a number of modules that are pulling together content automatically - in this case, content that has been tagged HurricaneIke. I’m using a number of modules, or widgets as they’re often called, to pull together content and display it without any human intervention. For example, here’s the Flickr widget in action, set to display photos tagged tajmahal:

Hopefully, what you’re seeing there is photos from the Taj Mahal in India. Again, though, it’s possible that some unrelated pics would appear there as well, because tajmahal might have more than one meaning to some people, like the casino example. That’s the thing about tags - their value is directly based on consensus within a community about their meaning. You can try it yourself by looking at the source code for this blog post and grabbing the Flickr widget code, then editing the part near the end where it says tag=tajmahal and then viewing the results. Or just go to flickr.com/photos/tags/tajmahal and change the word tajmahal to any tag you like to see the results.

Meanwhile, tagging can be used to grab snippets of conversations on services like Twitter. For example, here’s a widget displaying recent tweets referencing the tag necc08, generated by the site Twemes.com:

    What you end up seeing here, of course, can be rather volatile; sometimes the results - ahem - may not be what you expected. That’s why I tried to pick a tag that was very specific and less likely to generate false positives. It’s one of the challenges of tags, but it’s also their greatest strength: no one is forcing a taxonomy on anyone, and instead it’s individual people using their best judgment on how to categorize some information.

    Tagging is at its best when people distributed across a wide area contribute content around a shared them, allowing them to aggregate their content together. Imagine challenging students around the world to take pictures of important landmarks in their community and tagging them “ourlandmarks08.” Or asking students in different cities to upload short videos on what the Martin Luther King holiday means to their older family members and tagging them “mlk08stories.” Whatever the project may be, a shared unique tag becomes a way to bring together students who might otherwise never have a chance to engage each other in real life. -andy

    Filed under : Cool Tools

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