I want to know if there's any research on the evolution of tags, specifically in a social media context.

I know when I first started seeing tags and learned of them, they were strictly for searching purposes, as a way of letting others find your blog-post/picture/etc. Now though they seem to be used for anything and everything and more often than not people either put in tags that are completely irrelevant such as "lol" and "haha" or they seem to type up full sentences or phrases in tags.

From a user experience point of view - how should websites and social media networks respond to the evolution of the tag from a tool to something much more fluid? How should we, as user experience professionals redesign our products and sites to keep up with this?

Should tags be hidden under a "show tags" button to create a more elegant/consistent user experience? Should they be left as is? I'd love to see studies and/or research done in this area, or get personal anecdotes on this if you have relevant ones.

2 Answers 2


I believe you to be referencing two related yet different things: A metadata tag and a social hashtag.

Tag (wikipedia):

A tag is a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helps describe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching. Tags are generally chosen informally and personally by the item's creator or by its viewer, depending on the system.

Hashtag (wikipedia):

Hashtags are mostly used as unmoderated ad hoc discussion forums; any combination of characters led by a hash symbol is a hashtag, and any hashtag, if promoted by enough individuals, can "trend" and attract more individual users to discussion using the hashtag.

While the social hashtag may have been adopted as "geeky way" to trend relevant social posts together, I would not say that the tag has evolved into the social hashtag.

Update: I kind of jumped the gun on the submit

Now that that's out of the way, let's answer your question. I would say how you handle "tags" depends on which you are handling and how they are used. For instance:

  1. Let's say we are a social network where users post a common message such as:

    "Fan of @coolband? Come grab #beers with us #downtown tonight! #comeonecomeall #allthefunz"

    In this scenario our "tags" are integrated into the message, so we won't want to pull them out completely. We could pull out the "#" and, assuming they were live-links, unlink them and put them at the bottom. But we also have tags hanging off the end which, arguably, were meant to be displayed to enhance the core message content.

    Our example app here uses these tags to add enhancements/playfullness moreso than to help categorize our message.

  2. On the contrary, let's say we have a full blog post app. Here, we write our post about our vacation where our friend nearly fell into the Grand Canyon. It's text content, but our platform is not used in a way where we would add "hashtags" into our long-form post. However, we can and do add tags to the post. Perhaps they are descriptive like "vacation," "grandcanyon," but lets say we also add "lol" and "myfriendsaredumb."

    While you could argue that the latter two were added to add playfullness to the post, it is still our app's intention to use these tags as categorization. It is here, that we would have a more keyword/search related tag experience and I would expect the UX and design to dictate that.

These are really two different ways we use "tags;" each based on how our app mostly interprets the use and purpose of each.

  • I definitely did confuse the two. Thanks for clarifying this, in social media sites though wouldn't they be the same thing? Commented May 5, 2014 at 17:56
  • Note that some websites use hashtags while naming them tags (ie: Tumblr), which adds to the confusion Commented May 5, 2014 at 18:10
  • I think the similarity between the two, however, is the key point: They are informal and personal choices. In many ways, they are a tool specifically designed to not be controlled by the UX very much. We can offer ways to interact with them, but ultimately, how they are created and used (or abused) is entirely in the hands of the users.
    – DA01
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 18:51
  • @AnindyaBasu Jumped the gun on submit then got sidetracked. I've updated with more info on how a UX/design would change based on how we implement and use our "tags"
    – rgthree
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 19:15

The easiest analogy is that tags are like the index in the back of a book.

For example, when reading a text book, instructional book, or cook book, the back of the book will contain an index of keywords and the page numbers where you can find. Tags work in a similar manner. They allow users to easily find content based on a single word or phrase. This is different than categories, which are often broader. Think of categories as the table of contents in a book and the tags as the index.

Using Tags

  • All of the tags that you use should be small in word length.
  • Avoid using tags if you only plan on using them once or twice across your website.

I believe tags shouldn't be hidden under a "show tags" button, because that will not only increase number of clicks but eventually defeat the purpose of having tags.

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