A recent Fast Company article spoke of the surge in social networks, including a few MySpace killers. Concurrently, News Corp has been shopping around for a search pattern for MySpace while Yahoo, MSN and Google all explore social network platforms. It's obvious that the user-generated revolution is in full frenzy mode.
One of the interesting threads connecting these stories is associated with tagging. Wikipedia defines a tag as a descriptor that individuals assign to objects, in the practice of collaborative categorization known as folksonomy. You could paraphrase it as someone calling a spade a spade. But--and here's where we get back to that title--what if your spade is my garden hoe? And what if my garden hoe is someone else's shovel?
Here's the deal. While many people may see the same thing, it doesn't always mean they agree on what they saw or what to call it. I'm based in St. Louis, and if you ever want to stir up the ire of St. Louisans, use these two words: Don Denkinger. Those who are baseball fans of at least 20 years of age may recognize the name. You see, Don was the first-base umpire in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, aka the I-70 Series for the locals. Don was positioned at first and made a call on a close play late in the game that turned the outcome of Game 6, contributing to the Royals beating the Cardinals. Don made what he believed was the right call--"safe." Yet as everyone across the nation would see, the guy was "out." Even Royals fans, when promised that their World Championship will not be taken back if they agree, will acknowledge this.
So, what does that have to do with social networks, tagging and search? Let's go back to our spade issue. If the people posting on social sites are left to their own devices to figure out what the topics, comments and keyword-type assists are, what's to say that the terms they enter won't be too broad or too narrow? If the marketing evolution is to move from the friendly confines of Yahoo and Google to MySpace and Friendster, this is the big hurdle.
If I am a large automotive marketer and want to expand my reach, I may be willing to advertise within these networks on results and sites related to the tags people are posting. But what happens when the tags are off-base? What if they are inaccurate to what is being displayed in order to gain more exposure, inappropriate to what an advertiser would be willing to support, or simply too off-field to garner any attention? In each of these scenarios, I am associated with a less than ideal experience in a social setting, definitely bad for the brand.
Social networks aren't going away. They are changing opinions and interaction on a global scale. Tagging is a central part of this. However, unless the education process becomes clearer on how to tag for the masses, the true power of the medium may never reach its full potential.