Can social tagging improve email?

I’ve had a brief fling with Taglocity, an Outlook add-in for tagging email, contacts, and tasks. You can of course already tag messages in Outlook using categories, and I do, but rarely, just as I’ve rarely used labels in Gmail. For me at least, tagging is most interesting and useful when it is social.

Consider, for example, the recent interaction around the publicdata tag in del.icio.us. I’m continuing to see new items show up in the global bucket, /tag/publicdata. Occasionally I add one of these to the list I’m curating in my private bucket, /judell/publicdata. There, I can see at a glance which of the items I’ve collected are of interest to others, and to how many others. Focusing on the Bureau of Justice crime data I’ve been using lately, I can see who else tagged it, I can observe the historical interest in that URL back to 2004, and I can notice that it was most recently tagged by somebody at Many Eyes. I can then compare the list that’s being curated by Many Eyes to the list that I’m curating.

So here’s the question: Can these effects occur in email? In theory they can, and Taglocity lays the foundation with a feature called traveling tags. This is actually an idea that I discussed long ago in my book Practical Internet Groupware, where I suggested that keywords could be passed in SMTP headers, or in XML packets carried in message bodies. From the Taglocity FAQ:

Taglocity has a number of ways of transferring the tags you have assigned to an outgoing message to the recipient. These include using the SMTP Keyword header and something called a ‘Tagline’. A Tagline is a footer that includes the text ‘Tags:’. The Tagline is very simple but will work on any device and mail relay, as it is placed within the message content.

In my experiments I didn’t find any evidence of the SMTP method, but maybe that got stripped out by an intermediate relay. The tagline wouldn’t be the nicest thing to have to parse mechanically:

<p class=3DMsoNormal><span style=3D'font-size:8.0pt;font-family:"Arial","sa=
ns-serif";
color:#8C8C8C'><a href=3D"http://www.Taglocity.com">Taglocity</a> Tags: tag=
ging,
socialsoftware</span><span style=3D'font-size:12.0pt;font-family:"Times New=
 Roman","serif"'><o:p></o:p></span></p>

But it’s doable, and there may be an option for including a more well-structured packet.

These are just technical details though. The real question is: What kind of tag-related social dynamics are even possible in email? I guess that’s something you could only find out by trading tags with other people for a while.

In an internal email thread on this topic, one person noted:

I wonder if there’s both a public tagspace and a private tagspace? What if I want to tag a thread as “readlater” or “notmyproblem”… does everyone have to suffer my personal categorization?

I investigated, and found that there is a notion of public and private tagging. It works on a per-tag basis, though, unlike del.icio.us’ per-item privacy, so apparently you’d need to develop a private vocabulary that included no tags you’d want to use in public.

In an another message on that internal thread, someone noted the obvious problem of critical mass. The social effects in del.icio.us are a function of scale. Is departmental or even corporate scale sufficient to sustain those effects? Even when it is, as I’ve heard is true for IBM’s internal use of Dogear, can the social effects of that kind of web application be usefully translated to the email environment?

I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to hear from folks who are actively using Taglocity (or equivalents, if they exist) about what works or doesn’t, and why or why not.

11 Comments

  1. When people send photos to Flickr via email they are able to tag the pictures using a simple syntax in the end of their message:

    Tags: tag “long tag” domain:name=value

    http://www.flickr.com/help/photos/#140

    We thought this is a very simple way to include tags in textual entries, and so we implemented the same way of reading tags from various data sources like email and SMS into Midgard CMS.

    We you go beyond regular plaintext email you can of course use the rel tag Microformat:

    http://microformats.org/wiki/rel-tag

  2. I can understand private email tagging, to replace personal folders. But public tagging is awkward because there’s no URI standard for emails.

    But if I could tag the items in my bank statement, that would be really useful

  3. Disclaimer: I work/have interests with Taglocity, so please add salt to flavor.

    Hey Jon, thanks for taking a look.

    We’ve got some social email tagging customers stories, and I’ve posted to our customer forum to let people know about this post so they can chime in here if they want too.

    What we tend to see if small groups of people (5 – 20) form ‘group vocabularies’ with usually pretty detailed ‘domain specific’ tags. These range from project/client info, to all sorts of markers that would only make sense to that particular group. A typical number of tags for a group that size is around 80-100.

    As you explained, the tags travel around on the conversation thread, and Taglocity has this ‘Unknown Tag’ button that you may have seen – we’ve found that customers are using this to ‘viral’ their tag sets, i.e. you send me an email with ‘SocialTagging’ on it, I see it but don’t have it in my set and can add it, etc. People spread their tags in very organic ways over time. It’s not perfect but it’s ‘low cost/low stress’ to do.

    Importantly it’s sort of a ‘selfish self-action’ too, i.e. you tag your outbound email to help you when the replies come in, but the network effort benefits all those that use the tags.

    The positive benefit to this social tag spread seems to be twofold –

    (1) you get your email/meeting replies ‘pre-tagged’ for you, as in other have now put on the tags you originally spread and you can then have all sorts of rules/actions on what happens to it when it comes in and

    (2) it makes the search/filter experience very different, in that you can filter down based on a tags domain vocabulary rather than rely on plain ol keywords. When you’ve got 10,000 emails over the years then things like this radically change how you file/keep things.

    Anyway, enough of my thoughts as I have more bias than tags in all this. For our next release (2.0) we’re moving into this group/social email tags area with more emphasis on this group area, so perhaps outside this comment box I can talk about that next.

    Thanks again,
    David.

  4. Disclaimer: I also work/have interests with Taglocity…

    I’ve been surprised at how much impact the social nature of allowing tags to travel can have on your personal productivity with respect to organizing mail for re-findability.

    Within the small group I work with, I find I rarely have to tag incoming mail anymore even when it’s not a reply to a mail I sent, because I’ve adjusted my tagging behaviour to be consistent with my colleagues (and presumably vice-versa) This includes adding tags that they have used that I previously didn’t use and standardizing on consistent naming for concepts e.g. is it ‘bugs’ or ‘bug’; is it ‘Marketing’ or ‘market’. I’ve found these kinds of things quickly work themselves out – maybe it’s easier to sort these kinds of things out in a small group than a big group and is why tagging email is intrinsically different to tagging general web resources. Generally I find I’m only applying tags when I send mail and only if it’s a new mail (not a reply/forward etc).

    With respect to the comments about private vs. public tag spaces, I’ve found that generally it’s natural for me to develop non-intersecting public/private tag spaces and I can’t think of an occasion where I’ve wanted to tag something with a ‘public’ tag, but not have it travel or vice-versa. My private tags tend to be the ‘Task Organizing’ ‘Get Things Done’ type of tags e.g. ReadIt, DoIt. I’m setting those tags to private not because they are sensitive but because I don’t want to pollute other people’s ability to Task Organize. For most of my tags I want them to travel, because I want them back again if people reply.

    There are other social aspects of tagging that could potentially help to significantly reduce the volume of email that we have to process and manage. These are the kinds of things we’ll be focusing on as we introduce more of a group emphasis with the Taglocity 2.0 release.

    Cheers
    Martin

  5. I made a proxy site myself, I believe the right to privacy on the internet is important, new ruling about the police in britain being able to hack into people compmuters without warrant is crazy. Anyone remeber george orwells 1984?

  6. one more nice topic in your blog and nice comments too keep it up, If you advise some more related links to topic. I’m very interested in CMS and all its related subjects.

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