“atmedia” tags on Flickr

A tagIn their write-ups of @Media 2006, Eric Meyer and Peter-Paul Koch have both spoken out to discourage the use of the “atmedia” tag for photos on Flickr which have no (apparent) relevance to the event itself. Personally, I’m with Russ Weakley in the opposite camp.

The whole point of tags on Flickr (and elsewhere) is that they are not rigid categories decided by the site owners. Everyone uses them differently, and most people pay no heed whatsoever to the global namespace. For example, when I tag pictures of my family, I use “family”, and the first names of whoever appears in the photo, e.g. “family martin fiona”. This is because I’m thinking about the relevance of these tags in the context of my personal space on Flickr. I’m tagging these photos for my benefit, and for my friends and family–not to provide the entire Flickr user base with a convenient way of reaching these photos via a global search.

Tags are descriptive rather than prescriptive metadata. With tags, you can throw as much or as little description as you like at an item. This allows for enormous flexibility, which encourages people to actually attach metadata in the first place. This is a good thing. However, the metadata is also likely to be incomplete, imprecise, and highly subjective. But this subjectivity is actually a strength when it comes to “social” tagging schemes.

The reason tags are gaining ground on traditional fixed classification schemes is that people like being able to create their own labels, with their own personal relevance. People like not having to ponder whether they should file a photo of Westminster Abbey under “Places:UK:London” or “Architecture:Churches:Gothic”. Would Flickr contain even a tenth of the metadata if it provided a set of categories instead, and asked people to classify their photos accordingly? I don’t think so. Aside from the cognitive overhead involved in making those decisions, there’s the usability aspect to consider, too: repeatedly navigating a categories is going to be more difficult than just throwing a bunch of tags into a textbox.

So although it may be frustrating for one person to search for the tag “atmedia” and be confronted with photos of Big Ben instead of Big Veen, someone else is sitting in front of their computer perfectly delighted with Flickr for allowing him to group all the pictures from his trip with a single convenient, and–for him–highly specific and descriptive tag.

It’s fine to suggest a canonical tag for use in classifying photos or other data (blog posts, links, etc.). But trying to specify exactly what that tag should and shouldn’t be used for, goes against the grain of the system. It’s a futile effort at best.

In fact, Flickr already has a mechanism for grouping photos with a narrow set of common criteria: groups. It takes a few more steps to submit a photo to a group than it does to tag it, but that’s the price you have pay for increased relevance in this case. There was a group for @Media 2005, but there doesn’t seem to be one for this year’s event yet. If anyone is interested, I’ll create one.

(As a final note, I have to say that I’m absolutely gagging for the new Tags feature in Movable Type 3.3. It’s about time…)

Back from @Media 2006

@Media 2006 logoI’m back from the rather splendid @Media 2006 conference. I’d been looking forward to this for months, and it didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick run-down of the sessions I went to:


Keynote presentation by Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer A highly entertaining, informative, and impassioned view of the birth and first decade of CSS. For those of us who have been doing this web thing for a while (1996, me), it was a trip down memory lane. Like many retrospectives, I found this half scary, and half reassuring: scary, because so many milestones that are vivid in my mind can now be classified as “quite a long time ago”, but reassuring because it reminded me how much more I know now than I did back then. If the years had passed and I hadn’t learned anything, now that would be something to worry about.

Eric Meyer is a great speaker, and this was an excellent opening to the conference.

“Good Design vs. Great Design”, with Jon Hicks, Cameron Moll, and Veerle Pieters

Jon HicksCameron MollVeerle PietersThis panel didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Nothing to do with the quality of the speakers, mind–just that it would have been better titled, “Practical Design Tips”. Jon, Cameron and Veerle each took an area of design (typography, grids, colours), and explained some of the intricacies behind them. Although the techniques they described are undeniably important and useful to folk like me with the design sense of your average HB pencil, they never tackled the issue of “good” vs. “great”. It’s impossible to bottle genius, so I wasn’t expecting a masterclass on how to do “great” design, but I had hoped they would spend more time talking about specific examples, and explaining what made those examples extraordinary.

“IE: 7 and Beyond” by Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson Chris Wilson is Microsoft’s Program Manager for Internet Explorer (you know, that browser you used to use). He talked about a lot of the cool features that will be in IE7; none so interesting to the audience, though, as the improved standards support. Web designers and developers love to hate IE, because it has been so damned frustrating. When IE6 launched, it was the best browser available. Now, it lags behind everything else, but it’s still the browser that 85% of the world uses. Grr! It’s holding us back!

But you know what? IE7 is looking pretty good. And Microsoft isn’t going to sit on their hands after 7, either. Chris said that there is a roadmap in place for at least two more versions. That’s cool. I could be wrong, but the vibe I got from the audience was a kind of grudging respect. The biggest downer was the knowledge that no matter how good IE7 is, it’s still going to take several more years for IE6 to die.

“The New Accessibility Guidelines: WCAG 2.0” with Andy Clarke, Patrick Lauke, Gez Lemon, and Ian Lloyd

Andy ClarkePatrick LaukeGez LemonIan LloydI’d secretly been hoping to see a lot more sparks fly at this panel after Joe Clarke’s “To Hell With WCAG 2” article, but it turned out to be calm and relatively informative affair. However, even the panel admitted that the new guidelines are vast, unwieldy, and confusing. There’s going to be a lengthy shakedown period after the final document is issued.

Designing The Next Generation Of Web Apps” by Jeffrey Veen

Jeffrey VeenJeffrey Veen is a dynamic, enthusiastic, and inspiring speaker. (He is also REALLY TALL.) In his (beautifully designed) presentation, he covered much of the core of Jesse James Garrett’s book The Elements Of User Experience, and showed how the cutting-edge web apps of today are heralding a fundamental change in the way web sites are designed and built. The individual aspects he touched on were all well-understood in isolation, but the way he put them together into a coherent whole was clear and powerful. I came away from this presentation feeling energized and excited.

Other notes on Thursday

The QEII Conference Centre is situated in the heart of Westminster. Westminster Abbey is across the road, the Houses Of Parliament are round the corner, and the London Eye is a hop, skip and a jump away. Location-wise, it’s fabulous. Its catering, somewhat less so. Lunch was an uninspiring half buffet/half hot food affair with loooooong queues. Also, no vending machines for grabbing a bottle of something cold to drink. It did, however, have free wi-fi throughout, and an assortment of power sockets for recharging laptops. I’m glad I didn’t bring my laptop, though, because it would have felt quite thoroughly out of place amongst all the iBooks and MacBooks. (I’d guess that about 80-90% of all the laptops there were Macs.)

Also, pretty much all of the speakers were using Macs for their presentations. Hardly surprising given the audience, but I’d never seen Keynote in action before. In the hands of a good speaker/designer (like Jeffrey Veen): wow.

Drink dropsBy the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, and I never made it to the social event in the evening to use my Drink Drops (“Magical drops that can be exchanged for drinks at the bar!”). The Drink Drops were an amusing part of the conference welcome pack, which came stuffed in a nice messenger bag. The other thing I found disproportionately pleasing was that the delegate badges/name tags were printed on both sides, so that no matter how your lanyard twisted, your name was always visible. Nice touch.

Presentations I wish I’d seen: Jeremy Keith on DOM Scripting. Fortunately, I think Vivabit will be releasing podcasts of the sessions at some point in the future, so I’ll be able to catch it later.


Initial notes on Friday

A mobile phone’s alarm ringtone is not enough to wake me up reliably. Bah. Fortunately, my hotel was only a ten minute jog away from the venue.

“Bulletproof Web Design” by Dan Cedarholm

Dan CedarholmA look at how to make sure your site design works no matter how the user chooses to view it. Good, solid advice. Come Q&A time, some of the audience didn’t quite realize that it was a presentation, and not an opportunity for Dan to fix their specific site design problems, though.

“Javascript Libraries: Friend or Foe?” with Cameron Adams, Peter-Paul Koch, Stuart Langridge, Dan Webb, and Simon Willison

Cameron AdamsPeter-Paul KochStuart LangridgeDan WebbSimon WillisonAfter experimenting with Prototype for a while, most of my recent work has been done with the Yahoo! UI Library, and I was curious to see how the panel would line up. Answer: there is still a significant level of skepticism towards using any of these new-fangled libraries at all. Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be a clear favourite. I got the impression that YUI is possibly the least likely to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but I also think I need to spend some time with Dojo and Mochikit. Prototype…out of favour?

“Mobile Web Design” by Cameron Moll

Cameron MollI got the timing wrong for this slot, and I missed the first half. The second half was good, though. Main message: mobile design is about more than just trying to squeeze your site onto a small screen; it’s about customzing your site to deliver content and functionality that is appropriate to the user’s context. If you’re on the move, and using a web app from a mobile phone, do you really need all the bells and whistles? Or just a cut-down set of features, possibly already tailored to your current GPS co-ordinates? Much to think about here in this space.

Also, Cameron Moll? Sharpest-dressed man at the conference. Green shirt with green tie? Sharp.

“Strategic CSS Management” with Rachel Andrew, Roger Johannson, and Bruce Campbell Dave Shea

HOLY SHIT IT’S BRUCE CAMPBELL! WHAT’S BRUCE CAMPBELL DOING AT A WEB CONFERE… Oh wait–it’s his identical twin brother Dave Shea.

Cult actor and writer, Bruce Campbell. Web designer and founder of the CSS Zen Garden, Dave Shea.

I was looking forward to this panel because I regularly deal with projects that have lots of pages with very different style and layout requirements–and how do you keep your CSS organized? Do you use multiple files (possibly in multiple folders), or keep all your rules in a single file, and make sure everything is properly tagged and commented? The panel discussed a variety of techniques, but they varied wildly in which ones they preferred. I came away with a few new good tips, though. (In particular, Dave Shea’s idea for indenting comments.)

“Microformats: Evolving The Web” by Tantek Çelik

Tantek ÇelikThe first contact I had with Microformats was last year, when I started using XFN for marking up the links in my blog sidebar. The number of formats has grown substantially since then, and the whole idea has been gaining momentum. (Tantek works for Technorati, and they now have a microformats search.)

For me, this was the most exciting and eye-opening presentation at the conference. In fact, it was a HOLY SHIT moment. Microformats are the next practical step for the semantic web. Semantic markup is now pretty well established, and tags have made metadata cool again. Microformats are now adding extra meaning to ordinary markup without having to resort to embedded RDF. (Although Tantek pointed out that microformats, being XHTML, can be transformed into RDF. So if you want it, it’s there.) Ironically, they are going to be huge, REAL SOON NOW. Time to get with the program.

“Hot Topics” with Molly Holzschlag, Jon Hicks, Jeremy Keith, Eric Meyer, and Tantek Çelik

Molly HolzschlagJon HicksJeremy KeithEric MeyerTantek ÇelikA relaxed and funny look at some of the interesting topics that came up over the course of the conference. The most interesting question came right at the very end, and was “Which developments in the web world are going to make a big impact in the coming year?”, to which the most-voiced answers were “Mashups” and “Microformats”.

(And Eric, the guy three rows back in the green T-shirt you startled by shouting “YOU!” when you wanted another vote from the audience? (“Yes, YOU!”) That was me. I think I was right to be afraid…very afraid…)

Other notes on Friday

Presentations I wish I’d seen: Nate Koechly on Yahoo!

After having missed the Thursday evening social, I really ought to have gone along to the wrap-up party, but I was pooped. I’m not very good at meeting new people (I have given some thought to getting a T-shirt printed up with “I’m shy; please talk to me” on it for occasions like this), and what I really wanted to do was have a nice relaxing wander around London in the early evening sunshine. This I did, and it was very pleasant.

Overall, it was an excellent conference. It has given me plenty to think about, and I certainly hope to be around for next year’s event.

(Speaker images shamelessly lifted from the @Media speakers page.)