I’ve always thought that adding tags to files, iPhoto photos and blog content was a useful form of categorisation; but nothing more. After using Evernote’s nested tags for the past month, I now believe that this is how we will organise our digital media in the future.. simple, yet completely game-changing.
Folders and sub-folders
We are all trained to organise our files into folders. This makes a lot of sense. We can create a folder for our work files and then perhaps create subfolders for staff, accounts, legal, etc. We place our photos into a folder and then organise them into subfolders such as holidays and family; with more subfolders beneath them. This is how we learn to be organised so that we can find the files we need when we need them. Just like a physical filing cabinet.
In some ways, however, this method developed out of technical limitation rather than through better organisational skills.
FAT16, FAT32, and so on
In early versions of computer operating systems (e.g. DOS and early Windows), there was a maximum limit of 512 files that could be stored in a single folder. Anything more than that would need to be placed into subfolders. This limit increased to 65,534 when Windows went to 32-bit (FAT32 is still used on some USB memory sticks). Today this limit is 2 billion on the Mac and 4 billion on Windows and Unix.
Tagging has been used in content management systems such as WordPress for some time as a way of further categorising the content that you produce. It has existed in apps like iPhoto for a few years now also; but the ability to tag files at the OS level was only introduced in OSX Mavericks (2013) and has been available in Windows since version 7 but in a limited implementation (you cannot tag all file types).
Evernote changes world
In Evernote, you can create notebooks that act in a similar way to folders in an OS. You place notes into these Notebooks although you can only nest them two deep. You can add any number of tags to your notes so that you can categorise your content more completely and you can of course search for notes using the tags as well as keywords etc (e.g. all notes tagged as “business cards” containing “marketing”). So far, no big deal right?
Evernote also has a “tag manager” that allows you to nest tags. What this means is that you can create a taxonomy for your tags that can completely replace the physical folder/notebook based structure. And this capability is what is game-changing.
Release the constraints
Currently, a physical file can only exist in a single folder and so where you place that file is important. In order to be able to find this file again, you create an organisational structure of folders and subfolders that mimics a real-world filing system. But this is now completely unnecessary.
With tags and the ability to organise your tags into a nested structure (a taxonomy), it no longer matters where that file exists physically. You can locate the file instantly using the tags or even browse your files using tags instead of folders using Finder (Mac) or Windows Explorer (Windows).
This also means that the same file can exist in multiple hierarchies but not be duplicated physically. You can store all of your files in a single folder (e.g. Pictures) and use tagging to locate, sort and organise them.
Furthermore, as tags are stored with the file as part of their “metadata”, they persist beyond your own system. When you send that photo from the charity ball to a friend, all of your tags go with that file and will appear in their tag manager. If they are using the same tags (e.g. Photo), then it will automatically be filed into their own unique taxonomy. Any new tags will appear as “uncategorised” and they can simply move it where it makes sense for them or delete it.
This will happen
After using this nested tagging method in Evernote for the past month, I really believe that this is the future of document management and it could be easily delivered by both Apple and Microsoft. We already have tags stored with files, all we need is a tag manager – that’s it. Something that allows us to determine the taxonomy for our tags and the ability to browse files by that tag hierarchy. We could scrap this filing cabinet metaphor and start to work with digital files in a far more meaningful and effective way.