In online collections (photos, bookmarks, blog posts, emails, etc.), “labels” and “tags” are typically words attached to the content. For example I have a photo of a hummingbird on which I used the labels hummingbird (what it is) and coyote hills (where it was). These words are non-hierarchical, unlike “categories” or “folders”.

But are “labels” and “tags” the same thing?

A long time ago, I read that they're different. The distinction as described was:

  • “labels” are when you mark your own content (first party)
  • “tags” are when you mark other people's content (third party)

This matches the behavior I see in other contexts:

  • the “label” on a t-shirt is what the manufacturer (first party) put on, while the “price tag” is what the store (third party) put on
  • in emacs and vi, there's a "tags" program that creates a mapping of words to source code, but it's attached by a third party (the tags program), not by the author of the source code
  • a “car label” is put on by the manufacturer (first party), while a “car tag” in the U.S. is given out by the state vehicle registration agency (third party)
  • “tagging” is graffiti, most often put on someone else's building
  • web servers have an “etag” which is attached to content not created by the web server itself, so that makes it a third party addition

But I think the distinction isn't clear. For example, Flickr uses “tags” when you mark your own content, but also “tags” when you annotate other people's content and also “tags” when the algorithms mark content automatically. And Gmail uses “labels” for your own emails, but also for other people's emails. Maybe this distinction is not relevant anymore.

Separately, “hashtags” are something that started on Twitter. They're tags, but using the # symbol. This is different from “channels” on IRC, where topics are named #dogs, #cats, etc. Slack and Discord get the # channel names from IRC. Twitter's use is different from channels. Instagram, YouTube, and other sites also have hashtags like Twitter.

(I wanted to write this down as a reference for myself, the next time I'm wondering about tags vs labels.)

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2 comments:

lahosken wrote at Monday, December 7, 2020 at 5:51:00 PM PST

As near I can tell, the difference is:

If you say "labels", some people will say "huh?"

If you say "tags", more people will know what you mean.

Chris Aldrich wrote at Wednesday, December 9, 2020 at 11:00:00 AM PST

I like the framing you've made in the definition of "label" and "tag". I wish the distinction was respected by a broader range of people and programs as it could be more useful that way.

I've mentioned a subtle way of doing this on my site before: 

"I also find that I have a subtle differentiation using singular versus plural tags which I think I’m generally using to differentiate between the idea of “mine” versus “others”. Thus the (singular) tag for “commonplace book” should be a reference to my particular commonplace book versus the (plural) tag “commonplace books” which I use to reference either the generic idea or the specific commonplace books of others. Sadly I don’t think I apply this “rule” consistently either, but hope to do so in the future."

Now I'm wishing that I had a separate "labels" taxonomy on my site to distinguish between "mine" and "theirs". In using the Post Kinds Plugin for WordPress, I'm passively collecting labels (though it's called tags) others put on their content (which is currently hidden in my internal metadata) and that is separate from the metadata tags I place on it. Being able to separately search the two could be a powerful feature.