Staying current on how to organize digital information

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Sometimes, one can become so set in a certain way that any change is resisted. Change is often uncomfortable because it entails unlearning and undoing something, and re-doing it in a novel and potentially more risky way. By resisting change, one avoids keeping abreast of the times, and instead gets stuck on the less effective way.

For me, it is how I organize digital information. In my formal computer science education in the 1980’s, I was taught to organize my digital information hierarchically. Files are organized into sub-folders, and sub-folders into parent folders. Browser bookmarks can be organized in a similar way. Blog posts are categorized into sub-menus and sub-menus into parent menus.

A blog post can conceptually be slotted into multiple categories. This particular post is filed under both the Technology and the Social Media categories.

One drawback of this hierarchical approach is scalability: you may end up with too many categories/menus, some of them sparse. This blog now has 8 menus across the top menu bar—too many to display on one line, leaving no room for future growth.

Tags is a newer system of organizing digital information. Whereas categories are analogous to folders, tags are analogous to sticky notes. Another useful way to think about them is that categories are general labels, and tags, keywords. If I were to tag this blog post, I might add the keywords ‘tags’, ‘folders’, ‘digital organization’.

Unlike categories which are hierarchical (folders and sub-folders), tags are flat. You will see tags presented in a tag cloud, which is essentially a list of keywords. Clicking on a tag opens up the associated items, bookmarks, blog posts, etc. In some implementation of tag clouds, the size of the keyword indicates the count of associated items.

While categories are more clean in the hierarchical structuring of information, tags are less limiting in how one can label something to easily retrieve it later.

Tags and categories are not mutually exclusive. A word of caution is warranted however: it takes effort to organize information. The more organization, the more effort required, and it can become tedious.

Since adding tags to my skill repertoire, I have not looked back. My recent bookmarks are all tagged. All blog posts in my new blog, Spanish as a Third Language, are tagged.

Hunkering down on a set way to do things and not keeping up with the times can be safe and less unsettling, but the price to pay is missing out on the joy of improving and learning something new.