Folders vs. Tags

December 19, 2008 at 6:05 PMBen

I still see web-based and desktop-based email applications which only support folders to file email away into.  I'm a Gmail user and have the luxury of using tags to organize emails.  Tags are actually known as labels in Gmail.  But whatever the name, tags are in my mind, unquestionably superior to folders.

I don't remember talking to anyone who said they do not find the tag system better than the folder system.  And even if a person felt more comfortable associating an email with only one identifier, a single tag can be put on an email as multiple tags are of course not mandatory.  Given the benefits of tags over folders, I can't see why any company developing an email application would not want to replace the old, inflexible folder system with a tagging system.

Folders and tags are not limited to just the email world.  They exist for bookmarking urls too.  Tags were introduced in Firefox 3 which now supports both folders and tags.  I don't regularly use other browsers, but taking a glance through IE7, Safari and Chrome, it appears FF3 is the only browser among these that supports tagging bookmarks.  FF3, Safari and Chrome also have search capability to find bookmarks.  This may seem like a given, but I don't see any bookmark searching capability in IE7.  FF3 also introduced a very cool concept of saving the criteria used in a bookmark search as a "virtual bookmark folder" so you can later click on the virtual bookmark folder to see real-time bookmark matches satisfying the saved criteria.

I use multiple tags for my bookmarks too.  I've actually been using Google Bookmarks since before FF3 was released, so I've unfortunately never spent any significant time using FF3's bookmark tagging.  The big advantage of Google Bookmarks being that I can access all of my bookmarks on any computer since my bookmarks are stored on Google's servers.  I just need to log into my Google account to access these bookmarks.  Google makes it easy to bookmark a page too with a bookmarklet they provide and I keep in my Firefox bookmarks menu.  So bookmarking a site into Google Bookmarks requires just as little work as it would be to bookmark a site into Firefox.

Whether it be emails or bookmarks, tagging has proved to be really helpful when looking for stuff later.  There's probably lots of areas other than email and bookmarks where tagging would be useful as well.  If you're stuck with the restricting folder system for emails or bookmarks, I'd suggest requesting your provider to upgrade their app to a tagging system or, if possible, move to a provider that supports tagging.