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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

3 - Social tagging and commenting: theoretical perspectives




For some, commenting and tagging may seem an appealing approach to open archival collections for public participation and engagement. Others see them merely as affordable tools to impress funders and taxpayers, legitimising the institutional existence of archives, without seeing much value in content or interest in the consequences of inviting users to participate. Similarly, there are many factors that motivate people to tag and comment online. Although individuals can tag items for their own sake, without spending thought on whether the tags are of use for others or merely for their personal use (for example books in LibraryThing or images on Flickr). It is an activity that cannot be separated from social exchange and community building.

However, irrespective of the approach to tags and comments – social annotation versus private notetaking – it is apparent that there are different reasons for inviting an audience to annotate. There is also a plethora of views on the usefulness and implications of social annotation, and on what is attainable by inviting users to tag or comment. Further, there are many reasons why people tag and comment, and they perceive the usefulness of their actions in different ways. Tagging and commenting has different effects on individuals and archives. This chapter investigates how to conceptualise tags and comments and the phenomenon of commenting and tagging in the context of archives. It highlights an assortment of theoretical perspectives with potential relevance in trying to understand what social annotation means for participatory archives.

Before turning our attention to understanding how tags and comments are functioning, we commence by exploring their variants and how they can be understood in different ways.

What are tags and comments?

Tags and comments have many similarities, especially from the perspective of archival description. However, as Gursoy et al. note, ‘User-generated tags are not quite like subject categories and not quite like archival descriptive metadata.’ Comparisons of formal metadata and tags have shown considerable differences. Tags are terms, but in comparison with subject terms, they are heterogeneous, stem from different forms of knowledge, and end up with a structure that is more rhizomatic than Aristotelian.5 Comments do not have similarly apparent counterparts in traditional archival des - cription.