The main point of this blog post is that if you’re going to use the OpenMeta tagging framework for OS X, you should consider purchasing more than one OpenMeta app. They are not expensive. But first, I describe some of the benefits of tagging. Then I present and respond to criticisms of OpenMeta.
Sometimes you want files to be in more than one folder at the same time. You can use aliases or symbolic links for this (on Windows, they are known as “shortcuts”). But, if you’re using a Mac and are up for it, there is also OpenMeta tagging. The OpenMeta framework allows you to tag files and to search for files by tag.
Suppose you download a bunch of PDF papers on the “test-effect”. (The test-effect is a property of human memory). You might store some of them in a reference manager such as Mendeley and the others elsewhere. To find them later, you might resort to Spotlight (OS X’s search tool), but that is likely to yield false-positives unless your query is well-crafted. A better way might be to tag the papers up-front with “test-effect”. That is “topic tagging”. Later, you can search for all files on the test-effect by using a spotlight query such as: “name:.pdf tag:test-effect”. Or you could use an OpenMeta application such as Ironic Software’s Yep which facilitates searching by tag. It even allows you to navigate your tags. Any of these tag-based searches will weed out duplicates and files that weren’t worth tagging as such.
OpenMeta’s tagging feature is well-documented, so you’re not trapped by third parties. If your tags and files are instead stuck in an application like Mendeley or EverNote, you can’t re-use your tags throughout your Mac. Keep in mind, however, that only a few iOS apps preserve OpenMeta. DropBox is one of them.
The standard reason proffered for tagging is that it facilitates finding files later. But there are other significant potential benefits beyond that. Systematic and mindful tagging can dispose you to encode information more elaborately. ‘Elaborative encoding’ is a cognitive science term for reasoning about information and (mentally) representing information in relation to previously stored information, such that you understand it better and can retrieve and use it more easily in the future. As you read documents, you could remain attentive to the most potent concepts they convey, those that stretch your understanding. For example, a paper on the test-effect might talk about Mary Pyc’s “strategy shift hypothesis”, and you might tag the paper with that. By extracting the major concepts from a paper, you can improve your understanding of the paper; in the future you might not even need to retrieve the paper at all, you might be able to simply refer to your own memory. I.e., tagging is an additional tool you can use to help you elaborate and distill knowledge. You might also add a summary in spotlight comments or in a meta-document to which you have given the same tag (e.g., the document’s BibTeX citation key). Of course, if you tag mindlessly in a sheer effort to save time, you won’t get much cognitive benefit and (ironically) you might not save much time.
There’s more potential in tagging than that. You could also use tags to characterize the utility and potency of the document, the extent to which you have processed them, and/or your next actions with respect to them. The latter can be used as a much more general basis for managing reading lists than existing tools, such as Safari’s Reading List feature, Readability or InstaPaper. (NB, InstaPaper, Readability and Safari Reader are useful for creating clean documents to tag and process later.) I plainly discuss the foregoing and several other uses for tagging in detail in our workshops, coaching and upcoming publications and blog posts.
However, OS X does not yet inherently support tagging. I suspect it is only a matter of time before Apple evolves OS X and iOS for this purpose. Meanwhile, the most common way of tagging on the Mac is to use OpenMeta applications. The OpenMeta framework is widely discussed on the net. Some writers take a spartan stance on OpenMeta. They advise users not to depend on OpenMeta because sooner or later it will go away, “you can’t take it with you when that happens”. (That resembles the Buddhist stance of not clinging to that which is impermanent.) Some view OpenMeta as a hack.
Here are some of my responses to the spartan stance on OpenMeta. Yes, OpenMeta fills a void left by Apple; yes it co-opts file attributes (xattr) in a way that is not sanctioned by Apple. As such, the OpenMeta functionality is not as pervasive or elegant as I’d like it to be and—here’s the crucial point—its implementation may need to change. Should Apple clobber the underlying functionality on which OpenMeta relies, it would not be a major effort to find another representation for the information, to build tools to migrate to it, and applications to manipulate the data (the UI need hardly change at all). I assume OpenMeta vendors realize they may have an opportunity to sell a major upgrade to all their customers, and you need to know this as a client. Regarding salvaging your data, it is not a big deal programmatically to convert tags to folders, and populate those folders with aliases to tagged files. In computer programming terms, the model could change without affecting the entire view layer (searching file contents would be trickier to implement). If this worries you too much, stay away from OpenMeta. In any case, OpenMeta tagging should at most provide an additional vector of productivity, as opposed to being the cornerstone of your information processing, unless you’re a geek. That means: don’t give up on folders, at most augment your system with tags. You could always hire a Mac productivity consultant to provide some guidance and/or even hands on assistance.
I suspect that some of the people who criticize OpenMeta nevertheless use launchers, such as obdev’s excellent LaunchBar. But note the following: (1) LaunchBar’s functionality has some similarities to tagging; (2) one invests a lot of time over the years training and configuring LaunchBar; (3) it’s a third-party app; (4) it’s not as open as OpenMeta; (5) when you move your files around, LaunchBar 5 can lose track of them (aliases can help isolate you from this); (6) if by some very bad stroke of luck, you could no longer use LaunchBar on your Mac, you would feel some pain. One could be spartan towards it too —not a position I recommend. I am not suggesting that LaunchBar is relying on OS features that make it itself vulnerable —I’m sure it isn’t and that is a significant difference between it and OpenMeta applications.
This brings me to the main point of my post: There are many OpenMeta applications. Each provides some of the functionality you need to leverage OpenMeta; but none of them provides all that you need. So, if you want to use OpenMeta, then you need to prepare yourself to use different applications for different purposes.
- Ironic Software’s Yep and its near twin, Leap, currently have the most comprehensive tag-enabled Finder-like window.
- CaseApp’s Tags has a very handy “Tagging Window” utility for tagging just about any resource in context, without using a mouse. It also elegantly supports tags that have spaces in them.
- HoudahSpot allows you to perform powerful boolean searches of tagged content. For example, you can search for files that you want to skim or analyze, i.e., to read in a loose sense of the term.
- MailTags is optimized for tagging mail (and integrates with OmniFocus).
- Hazel allows you to automatically tag files in batches.
The distribution of functionality across disparate applications does pose some challenges. For example, if you apply tags with spaces in them with Tags.app you need to be careful how you tag them in Yep (don’t press the space bar while tagging, use the auto-complete menu or quotes). You can’t see the search results of your well-crafted HoudahSpot search in Yep (or Leap) either. I.e., if you want to see the tags bar alongside those search results, you’re out of luck.
It’s up to you to decide whether the OpenMeta virtual ‘glass’ is sufficiently full. Personally, I’d rather have some of the benefits of OpenMeta tagging than none of them.
Luc P. Beaudoin