Eugenia Bell | Observer Quarterly


There was a time when our most ready reference to the word “tag” might have been the childhood chase game, or an itchy label irritating the back of your neck. A conversation with a colleague here at Design Observer raised the possibility that the most unadulterated origin surrounding the idea might actually be God “tagging” Abraham. If this Biblical "you're it!" is the proto-tag, a more secular declension appears in the 1930 edition of The Outdoor Handy Book for Playground, Field, and Forest, in which no fewer than twenty-three pages are devoted to variations on what you thought was a simple game (including versions called Bloody Tom, King’s X, and the “Yankee” variety of something unprintable on a family website).  
Then, as innocent definitions dissolved and re-formed, even twenty years ago the use of “tagging” was more likely to refer to graffiti writing (probably derived from the idea of “name tag”-ing a train car or a wall) than innocent playground roughhousing (later this month Rob Walker will explore a phenomenon—a denoument of sorts for graffiti writing—that holds as much mysterious beauty as it does commentary on the act). Today the term tagging has come to stand in for so many actions that, as wired beings, we have absorbed so fully into our daily habits as to take for granted. Now, the most popular association of the word “tag” must surely be in the context of social media—identifying or calling out a “friend” or hashtagging a tweet to aggregate a topic for the search engine of life.  
The human impulse to sort, organize, and categorize is a deeply embedded one. This urge, whether in politics, war, or amusement, has perhaps reached its fullest expression in the Internet age, where the ontology of categorizing versus cataloguing versus “social bookmarking” and tagging is hotly contested. We tag photos, tweets, spoken languages, metadata, and in its most sinister manifestation: real people (covered by Bryan Finoki next week). 
In an effort to explore just of few of the ways in which tagging has infiltrated our language and lives, this month Design Observer (and the second issue of Observer Quarterly) touches primarily on human issues, which, in fact, was not our intent at the outset, but is perhaps representative of that fact that no matter how depersonalizing or systematizing the process of tagging is, it is, ultimately, the work of people with a profound and innate need to make sense of our world.   

Eugenia Bell Eugenia Bell is Executive Editor at Design Observer. She was the design editor of frieze magazine from 2007–2013, and is a longtime editor of books on art, architecture, and graphic design. Her writing has appeared in frieze, Bookforum, Artforum, New York Magazine, and on Design Observer.

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