The Meaning of Metadata

In the past decade or so, metadata has moved from the periphery of a user’s experience to become a common, integrated element in the majority of their interactions. Though we may not necessarily be conscious of it, metadata is the crucial structure underneath much of Web 2.0. From the tags that organize streams of content to the ‘likes’ that add individualized context to a post, the increased participation of Web 2.0 necessarily requires more equitable access to metadata.

Perhaps the clearest example of this transition is the humble hashtag. A hashtag, as seen on social network services such as Twitter, invites users to categorize their own content in a way that groups it with other similarly tagged content. This kind of folksonomy is interestingly self-governed: there’s no guarantee that the content tagged by a hashtag necessarily relates to the core concept, and at times there can be collisions on a tag as two different groups use it for different purposes.

But the hashtag has also taken on meaning outside of its narrowly intended functionality. At times, users on social media utilize hashtags to underline a point, rather than because they intend to share along a certain axis (effectively using a hashtag to add context rather than categorization). And its ubiquity in certain circles leads to the symbol itself having meaning: think of a sardonic teenager verbally saying ‘hashtag fail’ to simultaneously indicate self-presence in a tech-savvy in-group, exclusion and ignorance by someone else, and meaning that should be typified or extended beyond the individual instance.

Web 2.0 opens more metadata up to the average user rather than locking access to administrators, but this does not mean that there’s not still a distinction between the two groups. The core structures of data that build the social media platforms are fairly rigid and complex; as some metadata comes to the surface and becomes apparent, other parts remain hidden. Facebook, for instance, relies on flexible but invisible algorithms to determine what content should be shown to the user. Google modifies search results based on previous searches. And advertisers have worked for decades to find ways to monitor and track user behavior and better target their advertisements for maximal success.


In such a world, there’s a lot of complexity and competing paradigms for how to structure metadata. For a museum or archive that’s moving into the online space, this can be a difficult transition. How do you integrate user contributions to the metadata? Or do those interactions risk undermining your organizational structure? What are the needs of the user when trying to find content, and does that experience significantly differ from a more traditional, physical use of your archives? Should your metadata structure allow for integration with other collections from other museums/archives? Does your collection have specific needs that require highly customized and specific metadata or a more generalized system?

There’s a lot of questions, and while most archivists, curators, and librarians have been working with metadata on a very technical level for years, the digital realm presents new challenges. Of the various options available, I find the flexibility of Dublin Core to be useful and straightforward. Dublin Core involved a minimally-sized, generalized list of metadata elements that can describe many different kinds of media and objects.

But importantly, it’s also extensible. One crucial aspect of object-oriented programming is inheritance: creation of a generalized parent class that more specific child classes can inherit from, providing a basic framework that more detailed functionality can be built off of, while preserving a structure that can be accessed in a standardized way. Similarly, Dublin Core offers a basic skeleton that more targeted metadata fields can be added to, fulfilling the needs of an individual collection while preserving interoperability.

One example comes from a source I had previously discussed: the Internet Archive. Their metadata extends and works with Dublin Core standards while allowing for the specificity that their digital collection requires (For an example, see their XML Schema). Their collection allows some metadata to be accessible by the user (specifically, comments on items) while other metadata is protected. I don’t know that there’s any one system that will be satisfying to all organizations and users, but as in much of Web 2.0, flexibility and openness are crucial for success

One thought on “The Meaning of Metadata”

  1. Your blogpost is tremendously useful for understanding meta-data, especially when you explain hastags. Because of their variability and impulsivity, I did not consider them to be a very useful form of metadata. Until now. Perhaps the individual and personal nature of hastags might make them a powerful and reflective tool for tracking and retrieving not only what happens on the internet, but finding out more about those who are making it happen.


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