The blurred line between personal information management and publishing

When I mothballed my InfoWorld blog and moved in here, I decided not to use WordPress categories but instead to continue the method I’d been using before. Of the many strategies woven together in my use of, two principal ones are keeping track of stuff in general, and keeping track of my own stuff. In terms of the latter, I like to be able to answer a question like this:

Where is your collection of articles about how to do screencasting?

With an answer like this:

If I relied on WordPress categories, the scope of such a query would be restricted to my WordPress blog. Because I use tags instead, the scope can include my old blog, my new blog, essays I’ve published elsewhere, and of course material from anywhere else on the web.

So that was the plan, but when I switched blogs I never got around to adapting my tagging workflow to the new setup. After a while I began to realize that I couldn’t answer questions with URLs because none of my recent items were queryable in that way.

So I went through and tagged all the items in this blog, from January to August, in a single blitz. That might sound like an insurmountable task but really it isn’t. I exported the blog to a file, captured just the titles and links, and opened those up in a browser. Then I grabbed items in batches of twenty or so, opened them into tabs, and worked through them. It took an hour and a half. Being the tagaholic that I am, it wasn’t just an exercise in drudgery. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of my tag vocabulary.

At the time I did worry about how this would look to somebody watching my tagstream. And for good reason. Here’s how it looked to Chris Muscarella:

Jon Udell tags his own things almost exclusively. That’s lame.

Historically that’s not true, but recently it looks that way, and in any case it’s a fair comment. When you mix personal information management with publishing, the lines can get blurry.

On reflection I realized that I’d made things worse by including my links in the blog’s sidebar. On my old blog, I filtered these to not include my own postings, which are all identified with the tag jonudell. (And eerily, although that blog is mothballed, it is still syndicating my current non-personal links.) I could probably do that here as well, but not with the WordPress widget. It offers a filter for tag inclusion:

Show only these tags (separated by spaces):

But there’s no filter for tag exclusion — e.g., everything not tagged jonudell. So I’ve yanked that widget for now. Come to think of it, that same exclusion filter would useful for my feed. Should WordPress and add these features? Perhaps. Then again, this is exactly the sort of thing a general purpose syndication bus ought to be able to do for us.


  1. For my blog I wanted an exclusion scheme for the feed like you suggested. Instead I settled on an inclusion tag rather than an exclusion tag, like +for_blog. Now I like it better.

    Every time I tag I think “Is this link worth advertising outside of my delicious feed?” The people who really care about everything I tag have me in their network anyway. Tagging with +for_blog is shouting, otherwise I’m just mentioning it (and marking private is a whisper.)

  2. “Run your RSS feed through a Yahoo Pipe and strip out the personal tags.”

    Good idea.

    “Instead I settled on an inclusion tag rather than an exclusion tag, like +for_blog. Now I like it better.”

    And that’s another good idea.


  3. Jon, a few comments:

    1. Apologies for catching the tail end of a concentrated binge of tagging. Binges are often excusable. And if tagging didn’t merge personal & public information sorting, would it be useful? (I’m pretty sure I’d never use if it weren’t personal)

    2. How has your tagging taxonomy changed? Want to offer up some data for a visualization? I think one of the interesting things about library science is that they’ve long since standardized taxonomies for just that purpose, which isn’t the way that people seem to tag items.

    3. I’ve recently been engaged in several discussion about syndication between different devices and in different formats (repurposing RSS). The current hacked together workflow means using things like Dapper, Google Mash-up Editor, and Pipes to repurpose feeds for re-syndication (with options like +for_blog). It’s clumsy and so we all enjoyed the SynOA discussion.

    Although it also seems like there’s a current trend among young webheads to do without. A few of us have started to use lightweight solutions like Tumblr to mix our different feeds and have them offered only as chronology without categories (or comments). For taxonomies and categories, there is search or tags within specific feeds.

  4. “How has your tagging taxonomy changed?”

    In all sorts of ways, I suppose. One example: at some point I realized that _howto_ was an important tag being used by other people that I should be using myself. There was no practical way to go through all my stuff and apply that tag, but when I revisited the recent stuff I kept that in mind and applied the tag where appropriate.

    For certain things that I know are high priorities, I’ll even revisit the whole archive. In the case of _howto_ + _screencasting_, which identifies a set of things I get asked for a lot, I ran the query, checked to make sure everything I thought should be there was there, refound the items that weren’t, and applied the tags necessary so they’d appear in the result set.

    I suspect what holds a lot of folks back from this kind of thing is that you’ll never be able to do it in a complete or consistent way. So one response is to not do it at all because it’s hopeless. But I’m learning to let go of that and be pragmatic. Quite often there’s a need to produce a list of items in my corpus — either because someone else asks me, or because I realize I’m writing something that’s implicitly part of a series and I want to make the series explicit and refer to it. Using tags to materialize these lists requires no more effort than forming the lists in another way, say by just writing them down. Either way you have to find and capture all of the URLs. So if it’s the same effort in either case, I’ll vastly prefer the tag approach because it creates all kinds of opportunities for reuse and collaboration.

    Dynamic list-making is hugely interesting to me, as is the associated vocabulary evolution. In this case I was influenced by other people’s use of _howto_. But I’d also hope to be an influence on how related tags are used. For example, I make a distinction between:

    I’ve never articulated it until just now, but to me, the first query should mean “items about how to do screencasting” and the second should mean “items about how to do something software-related, using a screencast to demonstrate”.

    That’s a subtle distinction and if you compare the global buckets:

    you’ll see that nobody else makes that distinction. You’ll also see that those two buckets form mostly disjoint but partly overlapping collections of the same kinds of things.

    I choose not to worry about that. I appreciate the fact that I’m free to make a subtle distinction in my own curation of resource lists. If that distinction turns out to matter to others, they are free to make it in their own curation of resource lists. If enough people care about the distinction, they’ll observe one anothers’ use of language (tags) and naturally gravitate toward common usage.

    As I tried to show in the screencast on language evolution in (, I think that our use of natural language really is the model for this.

  5. “…nobody else makes that distinction.”

    You are not alone. I also try to distinguish instances from classes, though I am partial to tagging classes with the plural form of the tag I would use for an instance. I would use “screencast” and “screencasts” rather than “screencast” and “screencasting”. While yours produces a less subtle difference, I don’t think it scales as well. If I bookmark the home page of a favorite restaurant, I’ll tag it “restaurant”. If I bookmark a list of Italian restaurants in my neighborhood, I’ll tag it “restaurants”. For me, it is about being able to guess what I would search to find the item I’m tagging.

  6. Jon,

    Just wanted to toss out a hearty “thanks” for your indefatigable efforts to share your ideas and workflow. You never cease to be an inspiration. I’ve been trying to determine for some time if setting up a facility for tagging entries in my own blog is worth it…somehow it never clicked in my head to instead tag at, for the best of both worlds! I get organization, and at the same time I share it…I’m almost embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me before.

  7. Jon,

    In my day job I sometimes call myself an “industrial ontologist”. Creating tagging ontologies (terminologies, etc) is a step into treacherous, (“OILy”?_ waters indeed. (Visit or the umls if you’re having trouble sleeping sometime :-).

    Anyway, I’m sure you know not to get too hung up on the formal knowledge structures (acyclic directed graph with multiple inheritance?) of your tagging terms. The price of rigor in this domain is very steep (see CYC), which is why Google’s inferential ontologies are so effective.

    Thanks for writing, even though I rarely have the bandwidth to fully explore the leads you provide …

    John Faughnan
    (a BYTE era fan)

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