I’m revisiting the Archive of Our Own (http://archiveofourown.org/) project because I wanted to talk a little bit about tags, and it’s an example of using them that illustrates a larger point. The Archive is still in closed beta, and does not (yet, as far as I can determine) have any FAQs available, so my comments are based strictly on what I can observe from poking around in the site; I know nothing about what is official policy.

From what I can tell, authors upload their stories and input various bits of information about them. A set of symbols identifies some characteristics of the stories: rating, type of relationship, whether there are content warnings, and whether the story is finished. Other information is given in text form, including title, author, fandom, characters, and specific warnings.

The specific warnings (convention in fandom calls for informing readers about certain elements in the story, such as sexual content, violence, death of major characters, etc.) are given in the form of tags, and the tags can be used for conveying other information as well. There is a page (http://archiveofourown.org/en/tags) where all tags that have been used are listed, in a cloud format that shows in larger type those tags more often used. The very most commonly used tags are not only in large type, but in red rather than black font as well; the three most often used are “Angst,” “First Time,” and “Humor.”

It seems clear that the tags are not taken from an established list (or not necessarily), but can be added by individual authors as desired. I deduce this from the variety of formats and meanings of the tags themselves, as shown by copying one line of tags at random:

Catholic | cats | Challenge fic | challenge response | chan | change | Chanukah | character driven | Character Study | character:realisation | Chaya | cheesecake | childhood | chinese take-out

This is a very Web 2.0 approach – the users create the content, and also identify it in ways that they choose, although there are also some standardized ways as well (title, fandom, etc.). It illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of such an approach, though. It gives the authors agency and ownership, which is very much in line with the purpose of the site. On the other hand, the total number of tags at this moment is 1085, a number that doubtless increases daily. Someone using the site might have a hard time thinking of what tag might identify the type of story they were hoping to read, especially given that different authors might use different tags to mean essentially the same thing, e.g. “smut” vs. “porn”.

So I wonder, are these tags really useful? That raises larger questions about metadata generally, who should create and maintain metadata, and how. Something worth considering even though I’m not sure there’s an ideal answer, certainly not in this specific case and perhaps not at all.

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