It may just be a matter of confluence. I've come across a couple of blogposts talking about playlists in the past week or so, 43F has featured a couple of tips and tricks entries about iTunes playlists, and Bloglines just announced a playlist feature as well. Seems like I'm seeing them a lot recently.
My first thought was that it's one of those metaphors (taken from radio?) that's quickly becoming stretched beyond its original meaning--my fave example of this is Jakob Neilsen's complaint about the shopping cart metaphor. But I'm more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist.
And playlists have more than a little in common with tagging. In a lot of ways a playlist can be little more than a unique tag. In iTunes, you drag a song over to the playlist and add it, but this is only superficially different from adding a tag to the songs you want on the list, and then opening up the page of all items tagged thusly. The music doesn't move or anything.
It's interesting to me because one of the things that I didn't really get to a few days back in talking about tagging was a quibble that I had with defining tagging as the addition of "descriptive" terms. Reason for that is that one of the first uses for del.icio.us that ever made sense to me was when I saw Jill Walker use it in a talk (at the MEA conf) as a quick way of gathering up the links for the sites she was talking about.
In other words, my first "click" moment with del.icio.us was seeing it used as a way to gather certain bookmarks into a playlist.
In the strictest sense, this isn't descriptive tagging, since the playlist/tag refers to a particular context rather than anything intrinsic about the resource itself. More and more, I've been thinking about making a distinction between descriptive tagging and what I think of as procedural tagging, or tags that function in some way other than simple description.
The best account of this I know of (and there may be others, certainly) is Bradley's discussion of using del.icio.us as a teaching tool. I tried something similar in my networks course, but I didn't really think it through to the degree that Bradley does there. In other words, procedural tags can be used to set aside certain bookmarks for course reading (and not others), they can be tagged for particular units (or multiple, to indicate connections), with due dates for reading the texts, etc. You can tag a set of resources for a talk, as Jill did, tag them with someone's name if you want that person to find them easily, etc. Right now, the Teaching Carnivals are assembled every couple of weeks (in part at least) through procedural tagging. None of these particular tags are descriptive in the strictest sense, although the Carnival tags come fairly close. They point outwards, connecting the bookmark to some additional context.
Over at the CCCOA, we use tags as keywords for CCC essays, but we also have some hybrid tags, so that you can look at all of the articles from a particular issue, or see which of the articles are converted CCCC Chair's Addresses or Braddock Award for the best in a given volume. What del.icio.us calls tag bundles, we might also call playlists.
What's got me thinking tonight, though, is the place where the smart playlists of iTunes go beyond descriptive or even procedural tagging. Certain of the tags in iTunes are variables. For example, "Play Count" is a tag that increases by 1 every time the particular song is played, and "Last Played" and "Date Added" are simply automatically attached to the song by iTunes itself, as opposed to the 5-star "My Rating" a user can apply. Where the playlists go beyond this is in allowing users to set rules for the playlist that are based on these variables. Merlin's entry is focused on keeping an iTunes collection manageable, but I find myself wondering about how much of the smart playlist idea is transferrable.
Here's where I'm stalling out a little. I have a sense that there's something to this, but I'm having trouble figuring out how it would function outside of my head. Part of me thinks that there's a degree to which sites like digg already accomplish what I'm talking about. In other words, I think about the variables that could be assigned to a blog entry or essay, and how a playlist might incorporate them, and digg does some of what I'm after. I could also be creative with the RSS feeds from interior pages of del.icio.us users (add something to the playlist when User X tags it with Y). But it seems to me that there are other functions that might be of use as well. It'd be interesting to have a smart list that captured bookmarks on topics that had crested a certain number of users, or that had attracted steady attention (a combination of Date First Tagged and Frequency). Or even one that fed resources tagged with a user's top 5 tags, but allowed that top 5 to change over time, so that as that person's attention shifted to new issues, so would the feed.
No grand conclusion here, except to say that there's something here in the mix of procedural tagging and playlisting that may be worth pursuing. And I would, given time enough and skillz. As it is, though...