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Tag me stupid, baby!

This postbag contains small pieces of irony or humor which may choke small children or law professors

By Andrew Orlowski, 28 Jul 2005

Letters Perhaps we should call them The New Literalists. Or is Nitpickers a better word? Or how about Pixel Pedants?

The Road to Hell looks like it's going to be Tagged With Good Intentions, if you pardon the twisted idiom. There are indeed some painfully earnest people who want to avoid any misunderstanding in our online communications through the sheer power of angle brackets.

No, we're not talking about the Creative Commons crew - but about the quite wonderful taxonomy proposed by former newspaper columnist Dan Gillmor that's designed to promote honest n'healthy discourse: Honor Tags.

(See Are you trying to be funny? If so check [ ] this box).

Here at El Reg, we view it as an extension of our sadly-abandoned Humor Tags initiative, that we first thought of about four years ago.

Now here's what you think of the idea of tagging yourself stupid.

What about smileys, ask Jon Axtell and James Pickett? Reader James wonders how we ever developed without them.

"So once again we have people telling us that the web is a medium in which 'proper' communication is impossible. However this has always been true - in fact it was far worse for such unfortunates as Tolstoy, who was even further crippled by a devastating lack of emoticons. Without the benefit of Flash, FMV or even basic animated gifs, Douglas Adams' attempts to communicate humour are doomed to failure. Such a shame that Flaubert had no tags with which to convey elation and despair.

"However did we manage to evolve a written language? Surely it must be impossible!"

He adds:

"PS this message is intended to be partly flippant, partly sarcastic and partly condescending. On request I can offer an Excel spreadsheet providing a more detailed breakdown. With pie charts!"

You might enjoy this lovely piece on the subject by Geoffrey Nunberg, who had the same idea.

And let's not forget Victor Borges' phonetic punctuation.

"Andrew, I much enjoyed your piece "Are you trying to be funny?" on content tagging," [writes Michael Wojcik].

"I'll note, though, that some of us were well aware of the problems with computer-based communication (or, more accurately, with communication that was both written and rapid, which seem to be the two critical factors) even before "10 years of the net" had passed - in fact, before they had started.

"I published a short introduction to Usenet ('On beyond email') in "Works and Days" 23/24 which mentioned the problem; the issue appeared in 1994, at which time I'd been reading and posting to Usenet for a couple of years (and using BBS-style discussion forums somewhat longer) W&D is an academic journal, so my prose was a bit abstruse, but you can see the general idea."

Now you might have seen something like this before, but it see how it reads in the Blogspheric era of 2005 CE:

"As a communications channel, it possesses an often confusing mix of the attributes of spoken and written discourse, with some idiosyncrasies of its own. Like speaking, Net News generally adopts a casual style (and it is rife with its own jargon), and it allows responses with little time for reflection, so unreserved displays of opinion and attitude are common.

"So are rants, personal attacks, misquotations, threats, and other features of oral argumentation; on Net News, most people don't seem to operate under the face-saving conventions of non-electronic media.

"Conversely, it shares with printed text the authority of the written word and the loss of nonverbal cues, such as expression and tone of voice. Because messages tend to be brief (and long messages tend to go largely unread), it can be extremely difficult to convey subtle tones such as sarcasm."

The final line of Michael's 1994 introduction especially pertinent to today's echo chambers.

"Remember, too, that the audience for your postings is unpredictably large and diverse." (250-51)"

It's nice to see," Michael now concludes, "that the geniuses behind the bull-logging movement have finally realized the same things - though they're still a bit behind in realizing how to deal with them."

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Not everyone was impressed.

"I know you were trying to be funny/smart-alecky/serious about being funny," writes Rich, "but I fell asleep half way through the article."

Well thanks for waking up to tell us that, Rich!

"I heartily agree that more people need to grow a sense of humor; there seems to be an increasing preconception that everyone should think like YOU do and "What's wrong with you, you miserable fascist dictators anatomy part!" if you don't," writes Richard Warnock.

"I have had instances of misunderstandings with persons I've known online since the early 1990s on the old bulletin board scene where the other party has taken it seriously AND personally even when the content was literally marked up with smileys at the end of each portion that was meant to be just funny.

"And these are folks that have read my epistles nearly daily for over ten years.

"I think that each and every humorless indiviual on the entire internet should be sent to alt.flame for a two month stint as an apprentice target :)"

Richard also notes that our old Humor Tags idea doesn't clash with US Section 508 accessibility requirements. He does this for a living and describes 508 this as the most important for any US government-backed lawsites.

"The basic rule just says: (c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup. The equivalent from the W3C is: 2.1 Ensure that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup. "The point is that color is only an issue if LACK of it can cause issues in comprehending content or navigation. The primary exemplar is "Press the Green Button to Continue or Click the Red button to Cancel." This would give anyone one with color blindness a problem.

In which case, maybe one day, Humor Tags may fly.

Finally, the strong undercurrent of control-freakery that's behind the Tag craze hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Surely he next tag that we'll see will be HonorTagCommentSpammer," writes Steve Anderson - sarcastically.

"That's the problem with self-tagging, it's wide open to abuse. People think they can tag themselves to boost their traffic and for instant credibility. And anyone call call themselves anything. How about HonorTagSantaClaus?

"You earn honor by doing something good, not labelling yourself. It's like giving yourself a Congressional Medal of HonorTag"

We neglected this aspect of HonorTags first time round which seems to sum up both the earnestness and the futility, and it's confirmed for us in the HonorTags FAQ:

"The readers get the author's intentions up front... [yes, we'd sort of gathered that]. What's in it for the creators? They get increased control over how they're identified." [our emphasis].

Why on earth would anyone want to do that? And on the wild-wild-web, what makes anyone think they can succeed?

Next: an XML grammar to push water up hill. ®

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