Most times, when I sign up for a new social service, I’m asked to “tag” myself. When I scroll through the possible tags, and even contemplate making up my own, I wonder what the world would be like if we physically wore our tags. For example, how many tags would clutter your forehead? Would you pick and choose locations, placing more value on certain body parts than others? Would you be comfortable wearing every tag you apply to yourself in the virtual world?
We’re familiar with tagging ourselves based on the brands we wear and use. Certain conclusions are sometimes drawn based on brand usage. I used to wear Nike running shoes until they quit making my particular style. This change forced a switch to a Mizuno shoe and I’d never gone back (keeping my fingers crossed Mizuno doesn’t phase out my shoe too). Without fail, all the serious runners (e.g., run no matter the weather) held their noses at my early use of a Nike running shoe.
Apparently, and this happens pretty much every time you start something new, certain brands are looked on with less respect than others. In my case, Nike running shoes were seen as less than the ideal, even though I found them to be a perfect fit for my long, narrow foot. My move to a Mizuno shoe increased my potential to be identified as a “serious” runner (even though I won’t run when it’s snowing).
The same things happens in technology. At every tech conference I’ve attended, you see a line separating Mac users and PC users. Automatic judgments happen based on the computer someone uses, both good and bad. This reality brings me back to my original question: what would appear on your forehead? You’re willing to wear brands that you identify with. Would you dare share your self-identified tags outside the virtual world of the Web?
I wonder sometimes if our use of tags isn’t in a way a move backwards, or at least sideways. For a long time, we’ve dealt with the obvious identifiers of race and gender, even nationality. Now we’re subscribing to even more specific tags of our own choosing, but tags nonetheless. How do we avoid the stereotypes? Is it even possible to avoid stereotypes?
The First Meeting
I think about this every time I meet a new client for the first time in person. As much as I cringe at the phone (seems so impersonal), it can be an equalizer. Your impression is based on the sound of my voice and how I represent myself in the conversation. Unless you have an utterly annoying whine, the phone can be your friend. For me, first in-person meetings are almost always a coin toss.
I don’t look my age (I’ll be grateful in 10 years), I’m relatively small (5’4″), and I’m female. Depending on my audience, I have to counter the initial impressions of my physical presence. Granted, they know I’m female before the meeting, but weird things still seem to happen with the occasional client based on my size and gender. Luckily, they’ve all worked out just fine.
For others, there is a first impression that I look too young to be doing what I’m doing. I can counter that through our conversation by relating my expertise and recommendations for their project. It’s usually never an issue after that. I relate these experiences because I wonder if the response would be different if I came in wearing “tags.” Would my clients have a better idea of who and what I am, a full rather than an abstract concept, if I plastered my tags on my person? Would it make a difference? Is there a way to do it figuratively?
I’ve also wondered what happens after a tag no longer applies to who you are. Can you transition away from it, or are you stuck? Will you forevermore be known as a fan of Barry Manilow? And do the more tags you choose and then discard box you in, making it difficult to grow and change?
This post is full of questions that I don’t have the answers to, questions that I think we’ll be with us for a very long time. History seems inclined to argue that we push back against tags, or labels if you prefer, that many of the big moments in history were about redefining a tag. Is the tagging system we’re participating in flexible enough to not require uprising in the future, or are we once again, in spite of good intentions, tagging ourselves into a corner?