tagging the digital city: a new way to make your mark

Remember subway trains in the 70’s & 80’s; traversing the conduits of New York City’s tunnels bearing the spray-painted “tags” of urban graffiti artists? Taggers, as you may recall, were interested in trafficking their name on high visibility real estate like bridges, tunnels, buildings, landmarks, and subway cars. They were individuals attempting to mark the complex urban landscape in an effort to be “seen.” I think this is the motivation behind the re-emergence of tagging in the context of the internet landscape, which is becoming increasingly cluttered and noisy in the same way that cities are. Tagging is a way to stand out and be seen, it is a way to connect, it is a way to make your contribution last a little longer and go a little further. The fact that these “tags” are useful for organizing things is something of a happy accident. People tag because they want other people to see their work. Because they want digital objects to bear their mark. This is a very human thing. Can we use it to help us organize everything? Maybe. An interesting article in CNN, ‘Tagging’ helps unclutter data: Online search categorizes how humans label things, posted Tuesday, May 3, 2005 gives a good overview of how tagging and social software are being used to organize data. But it also points out the possible drawbacks to this method of organization.
When we think of subway graffiti, we think of the elaborate, colorful calligraphy that ended up in art galleries and coffee table books. I include a picture (above) by Magnum Photographer Bruce Davidson, to remind you that most of it was uncreative and relatively ugly black marker work. Worse case scenario, spammers figure out how to exploit metadata, proliferating their “tags.” Scrawling their signature on every digital object they can access, and doing for the digital landscape what the spray can did for 1980’s New York.

3 thoughts on “tagging the digital city: a new way to make your mark

  1. gary frost

    That’s an interesting analogy. Calligraphic subway graffiti, across windows and doors. across the 125th Street Viaduct related well to the sound and motion. It repatriated a medium to a classical genre by a renegade enclave. Tagging looks the like the same thing online.
    But wait, there were just the right composite of cars to operate the subway system. It was a built collection that proved itself each day. The “organized” system of tagged on-line objects has no such systemic function. Each day the system is not there.
    Same thing with paper books and electronic communications. Choose your medium.

  2. Tom Coates

    Being depressing for a moment – drawing together the analogies here might be more obfuscatory than illuminating. Clearly the two things are very different and exploiting the fact that they share the same name doesn’t seem to me to be enormously useful. The spamming stuff is clearly an anxiety though – which is why (I think) one of the core aspects of folksonomic tagging has to be that it provides value for the individual doing it first and foremost and that social value is determined in other ways (potentially by the aggregators and equivalents of search engines, who can spend their time weeding out these people as a professional service).

  3. kim white

    True, they aren’t the same thing; digital tagging has to do with finding things and graffiti is more about leaving a mark. But graffiti tagging was also a way of asserting ownership or mastery of a public space. In that respect, I think the digital tagger and the analog tagger may have something in common. One could think about tagging 1980 vs. tagging 2005 in terms of struggle for meaning in an out-of-control landscape.

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