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The return of the irony tag

After ten years of the net, few amongst us have yet to realize that computer networks can be a lousy communication medium. Against all the good things that we've gained - such as the disappearance of physical distance, traversed by very slow moving postal workers - we must stack up the losses. And top of that list is the fact that most of the delicious ambiguities of language that we enjoy in everyday life simply aren't conveyed online.

While today's hive-minded tech evangelists view their digital exchanges as a kind of telepathy, it's more like a stuttering Morse Code tapped out on a keyboard where the dash key isn't working.

So all kinds of hilarious misunderstandings ensue. Factor in the frightful earnestness and literalism of some participants, who seem to be disproportionately represented online, and huge swathes of meaning are guaranteed to go undetected.

This is one of our favorite examples.

Is this love humor, or is this confusion?

Humor in particular seems to cause real problems for some online celebrities, and the mere suggestion of humorous content instantly raises a no-compute flag.

"I don't want the feeling that this is a script written by a comedian who just wants to er, entertain us," exclaimed a shocked Dave Winer, who'd just discovered a podcasting drag queen he'd promoted wasn't actually female.

"I want a direct statement on how we are intended to interpret this podcast. And then I'm going to make my decision," he added, magisterially.

Here at El Reg, we've tried to address this very issue before with our proposed Color Coding system, more than four years ago.

To avoid any misunderstandings, we suggested that we'd clearly indicate the intention of any ambiguous, potentially humorous writing. And it looked like this:

  • Droll insinuation will be sage green
  • Mild sarcasm will be burgundy
  • Smarminess will be ultramarine
  • Irony will be lavender
  • Flippancy will be sunflower orange
  • Biting sarcasm will be pillar box red
  • Humour liable to cause offence will be in an insipid yellow which you can only read when you highlight it

While out-and-out jokes would clearly be tagged with a warning graphic:

There's a joke coming you idiot!

The idea was shelved after accessibility issues were raised.

Please explain yourself fully

But old ideas always come round again - and now this one has, thanks to former San Jose Mercury columnist and weblog-enthusiast Dan Gillmor. It's come back as a sort of prenuptial agreement where webloggers agree not to say bad things about each other before they've got to know each other.

It's called Honor Tags. (Though as of August 2006, the Honor Tags site has been replaced with a porn site, so we no longer link to it.)

The idea is that the accompanying metadata in them there tags removes any ambiguities in the mind of the reader. It's also married to the Boy Scout proficiency badge idea, and if you look closely, several of the proposed tags come with little Boy Scout pledges, too. But the general idea is that you tag what you're going to say very clearly, choosing from a number of tags that the elders of tagging suggest.

Then there's "Advocate/Enthusiast/Fan", which is short hand for "I don’t claim to know the whole field, but I know this (person, gadget, cause) is the best. I may criticize, but I state my bias proudly."

Flame Warrior Android

A weblogger mulls his choice of tags: what shall it be?

And for the sake of completeness, if you think your post doesn't fit any of the categories, you can er... tag it with the "UnTag" tag. This means, according to the guidelines,

"I like your tag. I'd rather not say anything, or my work doesn't fit your categories."

You couldn't really make this up. Although if you were to, please tag it with tag No.5, the Fiction tag, which means,

"I made some of it up".


There's a very real problem that these people are trying to address. SEOs estimate that as much one third of Google's eight billion page index has been generated by machines. These are fake, synthetic pages designed to boost the prominence of specific sites in the search engines, mirroring the spam arms race we see with email. Google has a great deal of trouble dealing with this, because it doesn't know which third is fake, and eight billion pages defy a manual audit. With the web already ignored by half the world, more online social activity is taking place off-web, or in hybrid experiments that harness email, like Yelp! [website - our report].

Failure is pretty much guaranteed when such cumbersome tagging systems are proposed, for the same reasons the semantic web has gone nowhere. Principally, it's impossible to imagine any non-Android volunteering to tag their own communications, before or after the fact.

Wise companies don't just ignore tags, they record their communications as carefully and as sparingly as possible, and AMD cites this El Reg truism in its motion for discovery, filed July 1, as part of its Antitrust suit against Intel.

And no tag in the world will replace that missing sense of humor, or implant even that glimmer of self-awareness we see lacking in some techno utopian crusaders. (This email to us from John Perry Barlow is a good example).

As John C Dvorak wrote, discussing the blogger's tagging craze -

"Apparently it's lost on all of them that the term 'tagging' in popular parlance, refers to the worst form of public graffiti. These people don't get out much, it seems."

It does feel like the very end of an era, rather than start of a bold, new and exciting one. ®

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