4 min read

Tools of the fad, part III: tags

In the last chapter of the season 1 of the series, we will look at tags or, as they are sometimes called, labels. The popularity of them has started growing with the release of Google Mail, which “disrupted” the traditional organisation of e-letters with labels. And similarly to the previous ideas in this series, tags are nowadays pipping up everywhere, in every app or service, whether it makes sense or not.

An organisation-master-pretender

Tags have their place in categorisation of information. They are a great way to, e.g., add additional information to things like a "draft" tag to a note or "unread" to an email.

What they are not great is organisation of the information. They are not a replacement for a good folder structure.


Tags do not inherently support hierarchical structures like folders do. This can make organising and finding related notes more challenging, especially when dealing with large numbers of notes and tags.


Tag systems eventually become inconsistent. E.g., a note about a code-related blog post could have several tags (e.g., code, blog, how-to, tutorial, etc.). Adding another note, with the same features, would require the user to remember all the tags used in the previous note and apply them to the new one. This can become difficult to manage and lead to clutter, confusion, and…


Tag systems, especially the larger ones, are prone to over-tagging, i.e., creating too many tags that can become difficult to manage. Adding up to this, tags are more prone to inconsistent labeling, as users might create similar tags with slight variations in spelling or wording, leading to a disorganised note-taking system.


Tags rely on remembering and maintaining multiple tags, which can increase cognitive load and make the note-taking process more complex and time-consuming. In comparison, folders, and folder structure relies more on discovery and understanding of the structure.

But it doesn’t end there!

  • Tags are less intuitive. For many users, folders are a more natural and intuitive way of organising information, as they mimic the physical structure of files and documents.
  • Without a clear folder structure, it can be harder to find specific notes quickly, as users might need to search through multiple tags or rely on a search function.
  • No clear organisation: With tags, there is no defined order for notes, unlike folders, where notes can be organised in a specific sequence. This can make it harder to view notes in a structured way and follow a logical progression.
  • Many apps try to fake the hierarchy and structure with tags, which makes everything even more confusing. E.g., if a user has 10 tags, and the tag list shows "1" next to each tag, does it mean that there are 10 emails with that tag or 10 tags on one email?
  • Some apps even try to fake the nesting of a folder structure with "nested tags", which look like paths to folders (e.g., adding a tag like 2023/01/01 would create a tag 2023 with a subtag 01 with a subtag 01). This is even more confusing, as it is not clear whether the tag is a tag or a folder. Or whether a note has all 3 tags, just the last one, or all three tags connected into one.
  • Tags also have problems when tagged items are exported, as items with more than one tag can be exported only once (to avoid duplication).

Ultimate chaos

Now, a story time. Imagine you have 10,000 physical photos. You want to organise them. You have two options: folders or tags. Which one would you choose?


  • Because it's impossible to have tags as boxes, as a physical photo can only be put into a single box, you have to have just 1 box where all photos will be thrown.
  • The best real-world representation of tags are… well, tags. Or labels. So, you print 10,000 little labels, multiplied by 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5) and stick them to the photos.
  • Labels can be anything: year, month, project, person, location, etc.
  • Then you throw all the photos in a single box.


Depending on the use-case, you have multiple options:

  • Group by date:
      – Get 10 big boxes and label them with year numbers (2010, 2011, 2012, etc.).– Get 10 × 12 smaller boxes and label them with month numbers (1, 2, 3, …, 12).– Sort photos into the smaller boxes by year and month.
  • Group by project or by location would be similarly straightforward.

Searching for a photo in the tag system would be a nightmare. You would have to go through all 10,000 photos every time and check the labels. In the folder system, you would have (usually) to go through 1 smaller box.

Bits and pieces

True, that in the computer world, physical rules not always apply the same way. True that your photo can have multiple tags (like being in 5 boxes at the same time) and you can search your collection much easier than in the physical world. But the problems listed above are still there and are not going anywhere. And your tagging system is only as good as your memory, multiplied by your discipline, divided by the time you spend managing your tags.

Folders, when used logically and intuitively, don't need any of that. You can just look at the folder structure and know where to look for a specific note. You don't need to remember anything. You don't need to be disciplined. You don't need to be a superhuman. You just need to be a human.


I've used folder structures for many things: document backups (for scanned copies), family photos, coding projects, etc. I tried tags several times, but they never stuck ;-)

They can be helpful, when used sparingly, and maybe managed automatically by an algorithm.

If, however, tags are used in place of folders, they are disadvantaged from the starting line, and they can never truly replace the real thing. At least not for me. Let me know in comments if "your mileage varies".