The (Elusive) History of Tagging

Since I’ve known the word, tagging is that thing we do when we associate certain keywords to a piece of online content. I think the first time I consciously tagged was while managing the account of an online magazine I worked for, but it wasn’t an entirely new thing to me. I have earlier memories of filling Likes in my Facebook profile, with words instantly crystallizing into similar blocks. It felt like building a Lego version of myself, except with words. For the first time, I was asked to break myself down culturally.

Image from here

A tag is basically a label, but not really. Even within the online domain, we have other elements that are defined or work as tags. For starters, we have html tags: those between <>, like the <meta> tag that contains all those keywords we would call “tags” in other environments. In that case a tag works as a structural element, but it retains a modular quality that still fits with the general idea — perhaps the most defining feature — that a tag is something you attach to something else. In this wider sense Harry Halpin is right when, in his book on social semantics, he argues we can consider query terms in a search engine like the implicit tagging of a resource (or a user, we might add, if we take Google search logs into account).

Tagging is such a diverse and young practice it’s not easy to find a comprehensive, linear history of it. According to Thomas Vander Wal (who coined the term “folksonomy”) was really a turning point, mainly because it introduced identity — the object being tagged, but also the tagger — which reflected the whole scaling up and stitching together that we associate to Web 2.0. Since then, as Halpin notes, tagging has grown to be more fortunate than the ambitious Semantic Web project, embodying a notion of meaning based on shared use rather than agreed-upon rules or hierarchies [if so inclined, we might even fantasize on such fragmentation of meaning as inherently conducive of the post-truth/filter bubble phenomena we recently love to hate].

When considering (a wider notion of) identity, tagging on Facebook and Twitter remains quite personal, although perhaps not as much as when I was building the cultural tag/Lego portrait mentioned earlier. We are tagged in (often embarrassing) photos or summoned in comments by our friends; we hashtag our painstakingly-crafted, 140-character nuggets of wisdom not so much to add any knowledge to a common object, but to pull ourselves closer to a trending topic [I don’t believe that’s the only reason, but we do direct those tweets to those searching for the hashtag rather than our followers, who would come across our words regardless of the tag].

Image from here

Perhaps unsurprisingly, tagging is historically linked to stereotype. Criminologist Frank Tannenbaum first used the term in the 1930s, while researching delinquent youth. According to Tannenbaum, being “tagged” as a criminal encouraged one to identify with the label and perpetuate criminal behavior. He stated “the process of making the criminal, therefore, is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing, and evoking the very traits that are complained of”. Tannenbaum’s position was a departure from earlier theories that focused on biological determinism and his central argument was against the labeling process itself or, in other words, the “dramatization of evil”.

Despite the scholar’s appeal, it looks like the process of tagging is alive and well in the electronic monitoring of criminal offenders. According to this report, the technology was developed in the US since the 60s and became embedded into the criminal justice system in the 90s. In the UK, tagging via electronic monitoring has been promoted as an alternative to custody since the early 80s and it has taken off since the early 2000s. Technical possibilities include transdermal tags that continuously monitor if the subject is assuming any alcohol. Albeit the form is different from Tannenbaum’s tags, and regardless of their effectiveness, these new control technologies are tangible reminders of the individual’s status as an offender and they are a source of debate for other reasons as well.

The connection between tagging, the quantified self and crime seems apparent, but it’s not exclusive. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s beautiful book on habitual new media does not address tagging, but it traces the twofold process of inscribing the body in an archive and identifying the hidden type driving it — which she deems indispensable at the level of data capture and storage — to the work of criminologist Alphonse Bertillon and eugenicist Francis Galton. Chun’s description of Amazon’s data capture process, which suggests users future behavior that conforms to statistical network analysis, echoes the effect of the tagging theorized by Tannenbaum.

Some things change through the elusive history of tagging, some stay the same. The Criminal and the Homosexual, two of the main labels discussed in the Labeling Theory that Tannenbaum and others inspired, have shifted from social impositions to strategic, flexible affiliations to be exploited for self-branding on social media. Fictional gangsters like Slim Jesus or Rich Chigga go viral on YouTube, while Milo Yiannopoulos tried to resuscitate the illicitness of homosexuality by associating it to Trump in his Gays for Trump rally and Dangerous Faggot Tour.

So, what is a tag eventually? Is it an object, a word, social expectation, a token of virality? Not sure, but I do believe it is a crucial element of the stereotypical imagination I am trying to outline on this blog, so expect it coming up regularly.