The Generation Gap of Tags and Folders

We’ve all watched the scene.

A secondary character in a primetime TV show quietly bites the dust in a hospital bed.

The doctor pulls a sheet over his face.

The detectives stand around, mournful of that last piece of information the dead guy failed to expel with his dying breath.

A random, anonymous nurse steps away from the foot of the bed to reveal a tag tied to the corpse’s toe.

Then she hands a piece of paper to one of the detectives for a signature. When the sheet is promptly returned, the nurse efficiently files it away in a folder.

In just a few seconds of monoculture television the modern generation gap is demonstrated: tags v folders.

In one corner we have the old folks, those diehard folder lovers. “Everything in its place,” is their motto.

They keep their houses tidy, their shirts ironed, and dust the china regularly.

Move that Michael Jackson statuette off the mantle where’s it’s stood for the last 25 years and you’re likely to ruin their day. Or even their week.

Then you’ve got those young gits who still live in the basement, much to the chagrin of their parents (they are almost 30 years old now, after all).

The floors of their bedrooms are oceans of clothes. They identify what they want to wear in general terms, with mental tags: t-shirt, sort of orange-ish, long-sleeved, cotton, black Dragon logo.

Then they scan the mess for a visual indication of those qualities.

If they find what they want, great. They pick it up and put it on.

It’s the same with computers.

Older people tend to take comfort in putting a thing (like a Word document named, “Renovation Supplies.doc”) in a very particular location (like a folder named, “Basement Renovation Project”).

It’s a familiar process. There’s a tangibility about it. They know where it is and they can sleep easy that night.

Them young ‘uns, though, they’ve grown up on a steady diet of Google, pirated music, and text messages.

“Who cares where it is?” they retort (because they always retort). “As long as I can find it when I look for it.”

And to find a file, these bucks just go with their guts.

They type a couple of words that loosely describe what they’re after (those are the tags) into a search field and hope – nay, expect – the best.

In a certain adolescent mood, a search on just two words – “Megan” and “Transformers” – would suffice to satisfy using this method.

But to that older generation this is sloppy.

Nothing is ever anywhere. It’s all just floating around on the computer, or on the internet, like a mess of laundry on the bedroom floor.

Of course, neither tags nor folders is ideal.

The logic and rigour of the structured system older computer users prefer tends to break down over time or when change occurs.

Projects can respond to new conditions and veer onto a new course. Organizations and families can restructure. New methods of thinking arise.

One truism about a folder-driven organizational method: it’s inflexible.

The keyword-driven mess of laundry is equally fallible.

It’s primary flaw is its subjectivity. Tags are generally applied from an individual’s perspective and each of us will have a different view on a subject.

It’s like that old project management analogy about the elephant.

We all see different aspects of the same object.

Some of us will remark on the rough skin of an elephant, while other may make note of its large ears.

So a heavy use of keywords can lead to misinterpretation and confusion as different people associate different meanings with different words.

The best solution, then, as the scene from the kitschy late night detective drama demonstrates, is a little bit of both.

Some stuff needs to be filed away neatly in folders.

Meanwhile, a liberal sprinkling of tags over your documents would probably enhance their findability.

Face it: the two systems compliment and enhance one another.

When a balance is found, managing information on a computer in a group environment becomes a much more efficient process.

And, anyway, just think about what could happen if you prefer one system over another and don’t concede some ground.

It might just end up being you on that hospital bed, surrounded by detectives, and tagged under the sheet.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 25, 2010.