When I think of metadata, I am transported back to many a summer project doing what amounted to data entry for the good of public history. During my first such project, the professor spearheading it explained to us student workers why it was important to keep to a metadata standard and continually update any new additions to a collection so that the information about them fit those standards. I was just happy to have a paying job, even though I didn’t quite “get” the significance.
But let’s back up: what is metadata? (A question your author did not think to ask at the time, but later became familiar with.) Metadata is, literally, data about data. Think about going to the library. When you walk into the stacks, you see shelves full of books. How are they organized? How does the librarian know where they all are and what they’re all about? How do you, the patron, find the book you’re looking for?
Beyond all of the books (and movies, and music, etc–fill in the blank with your favorite library resource) in a library, we have metadata about these books, which includes basic information like the title, the author, and the publication date. Depending on the standards and how they are used by librarians when they get new books, metadata can include all kinds of other information like the language of publication, if there are images inside, and keywords describing the contents. The more complete information libraries keep about their collections, the more impressed you will be when you say, “I’m looking for a book I read in 8th grade about boats and pirates and I think there was a whale and a girl was trying to solve a murder?”–and the librarian finds the EXACT book you were talking about.
Metadata works really well for libraries and museums and cultural institutions to keep track of their collections and amaze patrons by finding anything–so what does that mean if none of those things are your job?
Folksonomies are ways the average person develops systems to keep track of their digital stuff by categorizing and tagging. Readers may have noticed that I tag each of my blog posts here, as well as use hashtags on my twitter posts. Other examples include tagging on social media sites like Instagram or Facebook. Each time a user categorizes a piece of content in this way, they are creating metadata.
Tags categorize pieces of media created by the user and allow them to find related content by other users. It’s a way we crowdsource the creation of metadata, without even realizing it. This isn’t always beneficial, as companies can use their algorithms and your posting habits in order to sell you things or aggregate similar content, meaning whichever tags you create or search for ensure that you will see similar content in your feed later, which can create an echo chamber effect.
Folksonomies, however imperfect, are ways for the public to become their own archivists. They allow us all to define our content and the content we post on our own terms–we choose how to categorize our content and what we want it to be related to. In the post above, a “mini archive” created for a class becomes part of the larger “typography” archive on Instagram. While there are no standards that users must follow when tagging content on social media sites, trends tend to arise and similar content gets grouped together.
In tagging content on social media sites, we all use metadata to create folksonomies. It shows a collective effort to create meaningful connections between people and allows individuals to self-define their communities.