Seeing another question at UX.SE related to flagging, I realized that flagging is always associated to a negative connotation. I understand that Flags are Used to Convey Messages (such as Naval Flag Signaling or Beach Warning Flags). However, these messages are either negative, positive or neutral.

The negative connotation probably comes from the red flag but what I'd like to know is: when did it start in HCI and why (or how) did it become negative?

Additionally: is there (or was at any point) a flag messaging system with different meanings and connotations?

EDIT: More specifically, I'm talking about the public process in which an user flags something rather than internal processes only available to coders/developers, although answers about this could also lead to the concept of flagging most users know

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    Flags are used in email/messaging application as a way for users to remember to follow up (or whatever they want to do with these singled-out messages)…I've also heard the term in programming parlance, used to refer to a Boolean variable associated with something, e.g. "reading a message sets the isUnread flag to false". So, it's possible that the term came from that...users literally setting a Boolean "flag" in the database to alert moderators to that record.
    – Nate Green
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 21:02
  • @NateGreen, thank you for your comment, I have updated my question in order to explain things better :)
    – Devin
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 21:28
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    To provide a real-world use case of a flag being negative, in American football, when a referee throws a flag on a play, it means that a player has committed a foul (i.e. done something wrong/violated a rule), very similar to the use you describe. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 21:58
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    As a counterexample, metafilter.com has user flagging for both negative ("this is spam") and positive ("this is good and should be promoted") purposes -- flagging just means "this needs attention". I think the perception that it's usually negative comes from the fact that there are more negative reasons something would need extra attention than there are positive ones. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 2:07

2 Answers 2


Interesting you brought this up, I looked into it a little bit after my response on that other comment got some people talking.

I personally don't see it as a negative thing - I mean, yes, there are some places (like this forum!) that use it in a negative context, but my suggestion came from seeing it in Mac Mail where it's purely a way of making important messages stand out.

Having looked into it a little bit more, Outlook used the feature as far back as 1998 (possibly even before too?):

Outlook 98 - Source: http://winsupersite.com/site-files/winsupersite.com/files/archive/winsupersite.com/content/content/127320/reviews/098_1.gif

Microsoft themselves have an article, which they mention applies to Outlook 2010 which states that:

Applying a flag to a message or a contact in Microsoft Outlook gives you a visual reminder to follow up on it in some way. You can use flags with default dates, such as Today, Tomorrow, and Next Week, or customize your flags with specific dates.


Looking into the Apple Support forums, there's a support document for Yosemite which states:

An easy way to keep track of messages is to mark them with a flag. When you do, a mailbox for the flag appears in the Favorites bar and displays messages you mark with that flag.


Both of these instances are talking about using flags for the specific reason of ways for 'following up' as opposed to anything negative.

In my opinion, 'flagging for spam' is essentially just saying that you're 'marking' the e-mail as spam. The act of 'flagging' the e-mail doesn't necessarily mean anything negative, but certainly when you pair it with the word spam, it makes the context seem negative.

Therefore, I don't think there was a specific decision to make the word flag mean anything negative. Flag just means 'stand out' and this can be positive or negative.

In terms of why is first came into play in Office, I'm struggling to find that one. It makes sense in a world with terms like 'desktop', 'files' and 'folders' that another metaphor was used for making e-mails stand out, but why 'flag' was specifically selected I can't seem to find any material on - would love to find out.

The only suggestion I could make, is that upon some research it seems that 'flagging' is a concept within the 'C' programming language. In fact, it seems to stretch beyond C:

In programming, a flag is a predefined bit or bit sequence that holds a binary value. Typically, a program uses a flag to remember something or to leave a sign for another program.


This seems a pretty logical way for the term flagging to have made it into software, if programmers were using terms like this already.

I could be clutching at straws - but it makes sense to me at least. Interested to see if anyone else has any more insight.

  • This is a very nice answer @Vincent. I was aware of the C language and kinda figured it was the first appearance (as noticed in my edit) but didn't know about Outlook (probably because I rarely used it, and only for testing purposes) .
    – Devin
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 1:15

EDIT: More specifically, I'm talking about the public process in which an user flags something rather than internal processes only available to coders/developers, although answers about this could also lead to the concept of flagging most users know

What first came to my mind, Devin, upon reading your edit above, is the flagging feature used on Craigslist (though it now appears to have been replaced with a "Prohibited" link). Perhaps "flagging" was a misnomer or euphemism for "deleting," but it was reader-initiated and to be used in response to a post violating Craigslist's guidelines.

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I don't know when Craigslist implemented such features, though.

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