NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s how we tend to organize our digital photos: We stick them into a folder on our computer and label it “Hawaii trip,” or whatever.

Here’s a new way: Forget folders or albums. Just “tag” the photos based on what’s actually in each frame.

Now, extrapolate this concept to the ideas, images, videos — and people — you meet or wish to find online. If they’re properly tagged, they’re far easier to find.

That’s “tagging”, and it’s currently all the rage among the digerati.

Tagging has the potential to change how we keep track of and discover things digital — even whom we meet online. Several startups are banking their futures on it.

It could be our salvation as we attempt to sift through the growing clutter of data we’re amassing on our hard drives and on that growing digital repository that is the Internet.

“People are awash in an overwhelming sea of stuff,” said Joshua Schachter, founder of del.icio.us, a service for tag-enabled online bookmarks. “Our ability to produce content far outstrips the ability to sort and consume it.”

And with the growing production of photos, sound and video clips — material not easily searchable — tags become ever more important.

Take photos. You may have an album for your beach trip, another for a son’s birthday party. But how do you find photos of your wife?

Before, you had to scan through albums one at a time. With tags, you simply label photos individually when you first store them — with descriptive words such as “birthday,” “vacation,” “fall 2004” and with the names of the people in each picture. You can then search for your wife’s tag.

Flickr, which Yahoo Inc. bought in March, takes that approach — and more. Your friends can tag your photos, too. So while you might have neglected to tag your friend’s daughter, your friend can do so.

“Tags enable you to slice through all the photographs that you’ve got in whatever way you want to find them,” said Caterina Fake, Flickr’s co-founder.

At del.icio.us, as in “tastes good,” people tag and share Web links. Keepers of Web journals tag their entries to make them easier to find through a blog search engine called Technorati. Consumating.com lets you — and others — tag your dating profile.

Though many Web sites have long embedded search keywords, or metadata, tagging has a social component that gives it its power.

“Tagging is something selfishly useful. It helps you understand and categorize something for yourself,” Technorati founder David Sifry said. “But I can take advantage of the fact that you and hundreds and thousands of people have also tagged the things” for themselves.

Tagging is fundamentally about tapping the collective human wisdom, rather than relying on a computer algorithm, for search, said Ben Shneiderman, who teaches human-computer interaction at the University of Maryland.

And that human wisdom is bound to help you discover information a computer might not otherwise know to retrieve.

Noah Brier regularly looks for bookmarks tagged “lifehacks” — for everyday productivity tips — and recently ran across an article on better ways to shave.

“I’m sure the author of this never imagined this was a lifehack, but a del.icio.us user decided this falls into that tag,” Brier said.

Brian Dear adopted tagging for EVDB, an events listing service he launched a month ago, so people can find things they might never know to seek. View a listing, and you see a list of tags it uses. Click on one to get events just like it.

“You start being able to have other people discover things for you without you knowing you wanted to look for them,” said Clay Shirky, professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

More here.

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