Hirsu, Lavinia. “Tag Writing, Search Engines, and Cultural Scripts.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 30-40. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Lavinia Hirsu writes about the need to examine the process of tagging as a social and cultural process capable of generating community and identity as search-engine users categorize objects, people, and concepts. Composition studies, she argues, has generally relegated attention to tags and search engines to research, in her view taking too narrow an approach to this everyday activity, in contrast to fields like media and information studies and economics (30-31).
To illustrate her claim that tagging can be a source of social action and agency for users, she presents the case of Romania, which, after joining the EU in 2007, found itself the object of ridicule and prejudice. This prejudice was largely circulated through tags that completed phrases like “Romanians are. . . ,” so that an online searcher looking for information about Romania would find negative categorizations at the top of both the suggested search-term list and the search results. Through the advocacy of an advertising agency and a Romanian business, citizens were enlisted to join a campaign called “Romanians are Smart” by replacing the negative characterizations with positive ones. Over time the online references to Romania shifted to create images of Romanians as not just “smart,” but also “beautiful,” “educated,” and “hard-working” (33-34). International media recognized this project as successful, with Business Magazine proclaiming Romania “[t]he first country that changes its image on the Internet” (qtd. in Hirsu 34).
Hirsu discusses both the negative and positive Romanian characterizations as “folksonomies,” a term that contrasts with “taxonomies.” In the latter, the characteristics of the entity being described are “fixed” (32); in a folksonomy, the characteristics are fluid, responsive to user choices that result in “popularity and circulation,” creating a feedback loop as users replicate, tweak, and re-circulate tags (32). Hirsu argues that tags, which create folksonomies, can be applied to many digital objects other than photographs or blog entries. In the Romanian example, tagging functioned somewhat like “Googlebombing,” as one folksonomy replaced another (39).
For Hirsu, the importance of tagging as a cultural and social activity lies in the insights it can provide into the effects of electronic discourse as that discourse becomes a common shared rhetorical landscape. The Romanian project succeeded, she argues, in part because it was so universally accessible; entry into the public sphere did not require complicated technical knowledge or even much effort (36). The existence of folksonomies foregrounds how human action can impact a process like search-engine results that seems to be random or unbiased; Hirsu cites criticism that reveals that search results can be the product of and evidence for “sustained collective user behavior” (32). The use of tags to shift perceptions and visibility of entities and topics enables user agency as people actively build online personas (38). Despite concerns that a single user’s choices are inconsequential, Hirsu provides examples of how such agency can act locally and even extend beyond national borders (39). She argues that user interventions in the ways search engines organize information creates a de facto “alternative public rhetorical education” (36; emphasis original) as people discover how to manipulate processes that may seem “merely functional” but that in fact have the power to reshape culture (32). The study of tagging also illustrates how the power of a discourse may be as much a product of the way it is delivered as of the actual content, as higher-ranked search results tend to be seen as more authoritative (37-38).
For Hirsu, the flexibility that makes tagging a vehicle for cultural discourse also gives it a “fragility” that can result in productive folksonomies losing ground to problematic ones unless users actively sustain their efforts at “training” search engines to avoid simplistic categorization (36; emphasis original). The agency users experience is not necessarily ethical (37); only consistent work to link topics to a range of descriptors can prevent them from coalescing into unreflective stereotypes. Similarly, some tags risk valorizing one referent by denigrating another, as when “Roma” gypsies are contrasted with “Romanians” in order to elevate the profile of the Romanians (36). Other dangers include the ability of search engines to learn and foreground individual search patterns, so that users risk being exposed only to the patterns they have inadvertently created (38).
Hirsu argues that avoiding these limitations is an important reason for students in composition classrooms to investigate the role of such apparently meaningless activities as tagging (38). By examining various tagging trends to see how they shape a conversation, students can become not just consumers of online discourse but can find ways to become what Alexander Halavais designates “an informed user” who is “a producer of media, a willing interlocutor in the distributed conversation of the web” (qtd. in Hirsu 38). In other words, changes in technology’s role in democratic public life mean that agency in the public community involves participating in activities like tagging; composition studies, in Hirsu’s view, should more proactively embrace the task of helping students think about how their engagement in this process “creates content and builds cultural discourses” for which they share responsibility (35).