Following the discussion on this question, on this question, and in chat, I've been forming a bit of an insight on the tagging problem -- including why I'm finding it so vexing.
How Questions Are Tagged Affects How People Use The Site
Tags are the closest thing a Stack Exchange site has to structure.
They're how you find content that interests you; where you look first on the question feed; how you survey what content already exists on a particular topic; how you meander from one question to other related ones.
So, the question of what questions should be grouped together is inextricably linked to what are typical user-stories for using the site. Some very simple user stories could be:
- "I'm interested in the work of Flannery O'Connor."
- "I'm interested in the Three Investigators series."
- "I love talking about poetry; I'll follow the poetry feed, and see what grabs my attention there."
- "I'm an expert in 18th-century religious literature from Portugal."
We are never going to be all things to all people, and it would be impossible to maintain tags that slice the site for all conceivable, or even desirable, user stories.
That being said:
Focus On Author/Book Tagging Will Optimize For Low-Hanging Fruit
Author and book-title tags make sense, because they're an obvious topic for any given question.
But as the fundamental organization method of the site, I think they're extremely problematic. Because of all the conceivable user stories that are possible, author/book tags primarily support the stories of "I am interested particularly in Author X"; "I am interested particularly in Book Y". And they provide no support for any other conceivable use-case.
What this means, to me, is that author-book tags (and particularly tags for individual books, stories, poems) optimize for low-hanging fruit.
What is easiest to find? Questions about individual books. Why would you be looking for a question about an individual book? Because you're already aware of that book, intrigued by it, want to learn more about it. If you're not already interested in a very particular piece, author-book tags will not help you find anything. Some trivial user-stories that go entirely unaddressed:
- An interesting question on a book you'd previously considered uninteresting.
- An interesting question on a book you enjoyed, but had forgotten about.
- A question interesting for its subject matter.
- A question interesting for its genre.
- A question about a work that's easily available online, that you might consider reading just for the purpose of discussion.
What I'm describing here is a site that's hugely fragmented. It would have a small number of major clusters, around the low-hanging fruit -- the stand-out books and series that enjoy immense popularity. And -- this is the kicker -- it discourages practically any other kind of use.
Discouraging Niche Questions
If we build the site around an author/title structure, it will be difficult to use it in any other way.
- It is daunting to write a question knowing you are opening the category. That implies a lot about the level of response or interest you're likely to get.
- New users can't even create new tags. That's a pretty strong discouragement from coming to the site and posting a new question on a relatively-undiscussed book or story -- a common and crucial use-case if there ever was one.
- A user who is less interested in popular fiction -- certainly not our primary user profile, but one of the types of user profile we're interested in, if we want a scope that isn't popular fiction exclusively -- is going to have a terrible time finding anything that interests him, even if it's only as basic as "show me a hundred questions that aren't likely to be popular fiction."
- Even browsing for tags of interest is difficult -- the list of tags, naturally, will see popular authors and books rising to the top. If that's not what you're looking for, your search is going to be a discouraging one.
And so on. Now, "niche topics are niche" is going to be a problem on any Stack Exchange site. But the problem here, as I see it, is that probably a good 95% of written literature is pretty darn niche. That's its nature. The balance is different here. And if we don't figure out a structure that can work with that, then that balance is going to go askew.
This is already happening. Scroll down the main question page, and ask yourself a simple question: How many questions are about books or stories or works that you, personally, have never heard of? How many concern works that you don't consider to enjoy immense popularity, or are pretty darn close to being universally known?
I'm not criticizing -- there are many excellent reasons for this to be the case, at this early stage, at the tail-end of the private beta. But if this remains the situation over time, I don't think that speaks to good health for the site. It implies that the user base is focusing on a small number of works that are extremely well known -- while niche topics,which is where a lot of Stack Exchange's power is, are poorly represented and are underserved.
This Is Not An Answer
The conclusion of this whole lengthy scroll is not "author tags are bad" or "book-title tags are bad." It is that we don't know yet how we expect, or want, the site to be used.
My objection isn't to title tags. It's to the lack of other, more meaningful kinds of tags -- which, to me, means we really don't have much of a sense yet of what we cover or how to make the site usable. It's the smoothing-over of that lack, by saying that a question about a minor author and a minor story aren't particularly expected to get any attention after its day on the front page. I object to adopting author-title as our default tagging scheme, because I think it will serve us poorly -- but I have very little idea of what a better scheme might be.
I believe we need to devote effort to building user stories. That's the information we're missing at the moment -- a good sense of how we want the site to be used. The beta is a good start for that, but if our seed population is different enough from our target audience, then we're naturally going to steer the site off-target.
All I can say right now is the fragmenting the site by author/title, and nothing else, is a structure that I find unappealing -- but whether it's the structure that the community wants, whether it's the structure that the community is aiming for, and whether any alternative structures are an option, is more than I know how to answer right now :)