A while ago I published a blog essay and screencast on the evolution from a folder-oriented to a tag-oriented metaphor for storing, organizing, and searching for digital objects. The subject of the screencast was Windows Photo Gallery, an application that lives at the intersection of those two metaphors. Since then, I’ve looked for opportunities to explore what happens at that intersection.
One case study happened a few months ago. The test subject was my wife, an artist who has lots of images of her work and needs to rearrange them in various ways for various purposes. As is typical, those images sit in folders that aren’t aligned with the new arrangements she needs to create. Being a tagoholic, I suggested a tag-based strategy. Leave the photos in their existing folders, point Photo Gallery at those folders, and then use tags to define a series of virtual views. She often needs to burn CDs, and you can do that directly from the virtual view produced by a tag query, so this strategy looked promising.
But it didn’t work for her, and here’s my take on why not. Yes, it’s theoretically better not to duplicate images into separate folders. But in practice, the virtual views produced by tag queries were too abstract. She really wanted to materialize “physical” folders that felt more tangible, more permanent.
More recently, I found myself in a similar situation. For a presentation I was making, I needed to find photos in various folders, collect them, and include them in the presentation. I’m a tagoholic, and I’ve got no problem with virtual views produced by a tag query. But I wound up having to materialize a “physical” folder anyway, because there was no way to browse to the virtual view from applications other than Photo Gallery.
There are no easy answers here. On the desktop as well as on the web, we’re in the midst of a long transition from container-based to query-based storage and retrieval. And really, transition is the wrong word, because the two approaches will coexist into the indefinite future.
Given that coexistence, how can we help people understand the relationship between these two approaches?