Spotlight on Tag Wrangling

The system of tagging that AO3 uses is categorized as a ‘curated folksonomy’, a term which here means ‘a free-for-all tagging system supervised to some degree by a band of merry curators’. Though there are a few other ‘curated folksonomies’ out there, the one used by AO3 is unique in many ways, making the tag-wrangling system an innovation in archival organization and cataloging. (Want to read more on curated folksonomies? Check out (Curated Folksonomies and Tag Folksonomy and Tag Synonyms).

At AO3 the Tag Wrangling Committee organizes the curation which is carried out by approximately 160 tag wranglers. The following is a conversation with part of the committee — Co-Chairs Emilie Karr & Alison Watson, and staffers Jenn Calaelen, Franzeska Dickson, and Sam Johnsson. For the sake of brevity and readability, the replies have been compiled as a group response, and wording has been altered to make answers more understandable to a general audience.

Q: What were some of the first things you learned in order to get up to speed as a Tag Wrangling staffer?

A common challenge is learning to utilize the various tools that are available to OTW staffers and volunteers. This includes a site known as Basecamp, and the chat system, Campfire. Newer staffers are still finding out how things work there and the various things it can do. Because volunteers coming into the OTW have varying skill levels, not all of them have much experience with social media or wiki browsing and editing. Tag Wranglers use an internal wiki system for documenting rules about tagging, as well as recording committee minutes and other material pertinent to their work. This means that learning the tag wrangling guidelines that already exist is a separate learning curve from using the sites and tools themselves, and different members of the committee tend to become more familiar with some parts of tagging guidelines than others.

Q: What have been the big challenges for the committee this term?

One aspect has to do with helping tag wranglers manage their experience as volunteers. The staff need to make sure people are able to keep up with the workload they’ve taken on. It’s easy for a wrangler to assign themselves too many fandoms, and then because of surges in AO3 activity or technical issues, vacations or other personal reasons, it may turn out they haven’t wrangled a fandom in a few months. If one of their fandoms is big or active, that becomes a problem because it’s difficult to catch up when they are able to wrangle again. And the staff also needs to be concerned with wrangler morale, trying to keep both wranglers and staff from getting too discouraged by internal and external criticism of their work.

Another aspect has to do with taking on work most tag wranglers either can’t do or feel intimidated about doing. This includes matters such as cross-fandom content, or things that don’t belong in any specific fandom. That’s not explicitly a committee-level thing, but wranglers are usually more comfortable sticking to things that have clear guidelines and that don’t have a risk of trespassing on someone else’s fandom. Sorting out these types of tags is always an ongoing process and the committee is looking forward to better wrangling tools that will improve mass wrangling (many fandoms at once).

The last issue relates to problems on the Archive that also affect readers and posters. If users are seeing 502 error messages, that means that wranglers have been seeing them for a week or more because the wrangling interface used by wranglers gets lower priority than the AO3’s user interface. So if the Archive’s suffering from technical issues, wrangling may come to a complete halt. But since users may be able to continue posting their work even when wranglers are at a standstill, then new tags that are being created are going unwrangled for longer periods of time. As mentioned before, this is a particular problem with high priority fandoms, those getting a lot of additional works and readers. The AO3 filters being down has meant that wrangled tags are even more important to finding things, while also meaning that a lot of wrangling work is less useful because users aren’t able to use tags to their full extent. An increase in 502s usually coincides with lots of new traffic, meaning more new users who don’t yet know how to find things on the Archive, and new works with new tags that need to be wrangled. Lastly everything in the list of feature requests that Tag Wrangling has made to the Accesibility, Development & Technology Committtee (which runs the archive) gets pushed farther down the priority list because dealing with a technical crisis is always of the first importance.

Q: Do all of you work on the same projects or do you work on different tasks?

We have a rotation for meeting minutes, other tasks we tend to self-assign. We’ve brainstormed lists of things that need to get taken care of. We check in (on Basecamp) before meetings to talk about what work we’ve been doing. Most projects tend to have one or two people focusing on them, but everyone else provides advice and support. In a given week there are various routine tasks such as working on the internal wrangling newsletter; hanging out in chat in case any wranglers come by with questions; training new wranglers when we have an influx; checking on the status of various fandoms to see what may be falling behind; putting things onto our wiki pages, after we’ve made decisions, or we’ve clarified the guidelines already there; discussing support requests; and preparing posts for the wrangler mailing list (usually discussions involving new/changed guidelines, in order to get feedback from wranglers).

Q: How would you describe the Tag Wrangling Committee’s role in creating and maintaining guidelines for tag wrangling?

We’re the maintainers and the advisory committee. Some changes come because of user requests we receive through the Support form on the AO3. User mandate tends to be the rule unless it’s a contested issue among groups of users. A lot of guideline questions are raised by wranglers and we listen to the full list’s feedback. But the staff is needed to coordinate the majority rule, and then it makes the decision in cases where there is no strong opinion emerging. The Tag Wrangling staff are then responsible for writing the wording to try and reflect the decision correctly and then announce all new guideline decisions to the wranglers, to make sure everyone’s informed. Not everyone sees or remembers the messages so we poke wranglers who aren’t following them. This is generally done by leaving comments on the tags themselves, which is something we can see behind the scenes but is currently invisible to the public.

Q: What has been involved in preparing these tag wrangling guidelines for public viewing?

Immense gratitude for Sam Johnsson who is coordinating this work. We have been using the guidelines going public as an excuse to give them a full overview. There’s been three kind of “translations” involved in this preparation. The first is purely technical, translating wiki code (which was used for its posting to the internal wiki) to HTML (for posting it on a public website). The second is some rewriting for greater clarity. A document that faces internally to people who use it regularly reads differently than a document intended for people who are sitting outside, learning about these issues for the first time, and who aren’t clear about the steps that wranglers would then take once reading them.

But the biggest problem has been catching jargon. This is not just because people tend to develop terminology that works as shorthand, but also because over time various different terms have come into use for the same thing on the AO3. For example the tags that users can filter on are commonly called canonicals by tag wranglers but are also labeled ‘common’, a possible holdover from the term coders put into text back when the AO3 was still in alpha stage and it simply never got changed. Similarly, “freeforms”, another common tag wrangler term, was changed to “additional tags” in the forms that users see because initially — in closed beta — on the new works page they were just called ‘tags’, and a lot of users were inclined to put anything in there, from fandom to character tags. The term “additional” never fully transitioned to behind-the-scenes use, possibly because that doesn’t work as well as a noun! But the term “additional tags” makes more sense to users than “freeforms” since the meaning isn’t as clear as “character” or “relationship” tags. The tag wranglers are still struggling with the best way to express the the filterable/canonical/common dilemma since “canonical” is easily confused with a series canon meaning.

You’ll be hearing more from the Tag Wrangling Committee on various tag-related issues in the coming months as our filters return and the guideline publishing is completed. In the meantime, if you have questions about tags or the committee, you can always send a question to our Support team, who’ll pass it on to the Wranglers. The Tag Wrangling Committee also has a Twitter account at ao3_wranglers for all sorts of tag-related discussion.