One of the more tantalizing, if not confounding, innovations in how people share information on the Web has to do with a new process called tagging.

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One of the more tantalizing, if not confounding, innovations in how people share information on the Web has to do with a new process called tagging.

Promulgated by a site called del.icio.us, tagging has to do with on-the-fly categorization of Web links. It’s like a do-it-yourself Dewey Decimal System for the Web, except that it really isn’t a system at all. At least, not yet.

Tagging works this way: You find a piece of content on the Web you like, and you assign it a descriptive keyword. Say you come across an article (or a Web log entry, or a video clip) about a cool new concept called folksonomy. You assign it the tag “folksonomy” and post it on del.icio.us (note that the site is accessible simply by typing del.icio.us — there’s no www or .com).

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Here’s what happens: Someone sees your post and remembers reading another piece about folksonomy. Or comes across an example of folksonomy on the Web. Then that person tags and posts the link.

As others tag and post, a whole body of information builds around a topic. Where tagging works best, it acts like a meme — an idea whose time has come and which captures the imagination of a lot of people all at once.

I chose the example of folksonomy because it actually exists on del.icio.us. Not only that, but del.icio.us is an example of folksonomy — a term coined specifically to describe collaborative categorization. Other examples include the photo site Flickr, a bookmark-sharing site called Jots, Tagsurf and 43 Things.

Del.icio.us lists a lot of popular tags in its right column. If you click on “see more tags” you get a cool visual representation of which tags are the “hottest” at the moment.

A visual scan immediately tells you that del.icio.us is still a geek-fed phenomenon. “Blog,” “Python,” “Linux” and “Firefox” are perennial frontrunners. But more mainstream tags like “sports,” “shopping” and “philosophy” are popular as well.

Part of tagging’s allure has to do with its serendipity. It’s the closest the Web comes to the “surprise” factor of a newspaper or magazine. You know, where you’re flipping pages and come across a fascinating article about a topic you didn’t even know you were interested in.

The “many hands” approach of tagging also provides an alternative way of getting useful information that you wouldn’t come up with in a standard Web search. For example, clicking on the “information” tag yielded a site called “The most useful Web sites for reporters.” It’s a powerful compilation of journalistic tools, from acronym decoders to debunkery of urban legends.

You can track tags via RSS (syndication) feeds and an RSS newsreader such as Bloglines. One clever variation has to do with tracking a user’s tags. If you find yourself repeatedly intrigued by Joe Schmoe’s tags, you can subscribe to his list so you “know what he knows.”

Del.icio.us creator Joshua Schachter, who chose the site’s name because early on “there was some focus on good URLs tasting good,” calls del.icio.us a “social bookmarks manager.” But the site’s implications go much further. In the still largely untamed frontier of Web information management, tagging could ultimately play a far more useful role than even the most sophisticated search utilities.

The reason: Categorization fights the tyranny of infoglut. Compare a Google search on folksonomy with the del.icio.us tag and you quickly fathom the advantages of tagging for learning about a given topic.

Will its attraction extend beyond the geek camp? And if millions start tagging, will even a tag such as folksonomy lose its distinction?

Print media forced literate culture to think in terms of centralized information management. Tagging and RSS are by nature decentralized. Somewhere in between may lie the magic bullet, but for now tagging represents an intriguing step forward for the Web.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com