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On a website, text will by default have the cursor:text type which looks like this:

Text cursor

However I've noticed some websites use the cursor:default type on text.

Default cursor over text

When should cursor:default be used on text?

Stack exchange uses cursor:default on some parts of text, but I cannot work out why cursor:default has not been applied to all non-clickable text.

Stack overflow using cursor default

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Good question.
The general rule of thumb is to show the text cursor when a section of the page is expected to be copied. The text cursor provides visual feedback that the user can highlight text or input text. So it should be displayed when the design calls for the user to interact with text.

In your example of the tags text, the user really isn't supposed to interact with that text. It's really a label, and while some labels are helpful to be able to copy, here, it just kind of gets in the way of the same cursor being used to type in the tags directly below. It's one of those nit-picky kind of things, but when used properly, can add nice subtleties to the page.
It harkens back to the age of desktop applications. If you see a regular application with an input box and a label above it describing what the input is for, your user is expecting to interact with the input field, not the label, and so the label doesn't have the text cursor, the input does.

If you're looking for a general rule of thumb, I would say use the text cursor whenever the label (or what have you) might be useful for the user to copy or interact with in some way. Otherwise, if the user is not expected to interact with the text in any way except just reading it, I would stick to the default cursor. The user can still copy the text if they need to, so no need to worry about that.

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  • Thanks dude. It's hard to tell what some users might want to copy, for example a product title or a price. Nevertheless this is helpful! – Daniel Johnson May 22 '14 at 6:22
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    I agree, it can be difficult to determine what the user might want to copy. In general, I'd say it's safe to use the text cursor. Things like price, and especially a product title, would probably be copied at one time or another. While things (or labels) like "Tags", or "Email Address," are less likely to be copied. That's why it's a good idea to have a test user base to get ideas back on. A person individually is very unlikely to think of every scenario, and a test base helps see problems that you might not have considered (such as wanting to copy a product title). – Andrew May 22 '14 at 12:43

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