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  • jonny
    Nov 28, 2002
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      Metacrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia

      by Cory Doctorow

      1. Introduction
      2. The problems
      2.1 People lie
      2.2 People are lazy
      2.3 People are stupid
      2.4 Mission: Impossible -- know thyself
      2.5 Schemas aren't neutral
      2.6 Metrics influence results
      2.7 There's more than one way to describe something
      3. Reliable metadata

      1. Introduction
      Metadata is "data about data" -- information like keywords,
      page-length, title, word-count, abstract, location, SKU, ISBN, and so
      on. Explicit, human-generated metadata has enjoyed recent trendiness,
      especially in the world of XML. A typical scenario goes like this: a
      number of suppliers get together and agree on a metadata standard -- a
      Document Type Definition or scheme -- for a given subject area, say
      washing machines. They agree to a common vocabulary for describing
      washing machines: size, capacity, energy consumption, water
      consumption, price. They create machine-readable databases of their
      inventory, which are available in whole or part to search agents and
      other databases, so that a consumer can enter the parameters of the
      washing machine he's seeking and query multiple sites simultaneously
      for an exhaustive list of the available washing machines that meet his

      If everyone would subscribe to such a system and create good metadata
      for the purposes of describing their goods, services and information,
      it would be a trivial matter to search the Internet for highly
      qualified, context-sensitive results: a fan could find all the
      downloadable music in a given genre, a manufacturer could efficiently
      discover suppliers, travelers could easily choose a hotel room for an
      upcoming trip.

      A world of exhaustive, reliable metadata would be a utopia. It's also
      a pipe-dream, founded on self-delusion, nerd hubris and hysterically
      inflated market opportunities.

      2. The problems
      There are at least seven insurmountable obstacles between the world as
      we know it and meta-utopia. I'll enumerate them below:.

      2.1 People lie
      Metadata exists in a competitive world. Suppliers compete to sell
      their goods, cranks compete to convey their crackpot theories (mea
      culpa), artists compete for audience. Attention-spans and wallets may
      not be zero-sum, but they're damned close.
      That's why:

      A search for any commonly referenced term at a search-engine like
      Altavista will often turn up at least one porn link in the first ten
      Your mailbox is full of spam with subject lines like "Re: The
      information you requested."
      Publisher's Clearing House sends out advertisements that holler "You
      may already be a winner!"
      Press-releases have gargantuan lists of empty buzzwords attached to
      Meta-utopia is a world of reliable metadata. When poisoning the well
      confers benefits to the poisoners, the meta-waters get awfully toxic
      in short order.

      2.2 People are lazy
      You and me are engaged in the incredibly serious business of creating
      information. Here in the Info-Ivory-Tower, we understand the
      importance of creating and maintaining excellent metadata for our
      But info-civilians are remarkably cavalier about their information.
      Your clueless aunt sends you email with no subject line, half the
      pages on Geocities are called "Please title this page" and your boss
      stores all of his files on his desktop with helpful titles like

      This laziness is bottomless. No amount of ease-of-use will end it. To
      understand the true depths of meta-laziness, download ten random MP3
      files from Napster. Chances are, at least one will have no title,
      artist or track information -- this despite the fact that adding in
      this info merely requires clicking the "Fetch Track Info from CDDB"
      button on every MP3-ripping application.

      Short of breaking fingers or sending out squads of vengeful
      info-ninjas to add metadata to the average user's files, we're never
      gonna get there.

      2.3 People are stupid
      Even when there's a positive benefit to creating good metadata, people
      steadfastly refuse to exercise care and diligence in their metadata
      Take eBay: every seller there has a damned good reason for
      double-checking their listings for typos and misspellings. Try
      searching for "plam" on eBay. Right now, that turns up nine typoed
      listings for "Plam Pilots." Misspelled listings don't show up in
      correctly-spelled searches and hence garner fewer bids and lower
      sale-prices. You can almost always get a bargain on a Plam Pilot at

      The fine (and gross) points of literacy -- spelling, punctuation,
      grammar -- elude the vast majority of the Internet's users. To believe
      that J. Random Users will suddenly and en masse learn to spell and
      punctuate -- let alone accurately categorize their information
      according to whatever hierarchy they're supposed to be using -- is
      self-delusion of the first water.

      2.4 Mission: Impossible -- know thyself
      In meta-utopia, everyone engaged in the heady business of describing
      stuff carefully weighs the stuff in the balance and accurately divines
      the stuff's properties, noting those results.
      Simple observation demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption. When
      Nielsen used log-books to gather information on the viewing habits of
      their sample families, the results were heavily skewed to Masterpiece
      Theater and Sesame Street. Replacing the journals with set-top boxes
      that reported what the set was actually tuned to showed what the
      average American family was really watching: naked midget wrestling,
      America's Funniest Botched Cosmetic Surgeries and Jerry Springer
      presents: "My daughter dresses like a slut!"

      Ask a programmer how long it'll take to write a given module, or a
      contractor how long it'll take to fix your roof. Ask a laconic
      Southerner how far it is to the creek. Better yet, throw darts -- the
      answer's likely to be just as reliable.

      People are lousy observers of their own behaviors. Entire religions
      are formed with the goal of helping people understand themselves
      better; therapists rake in billions working for this very end.

      Why should we believe that using metadata will help J. Random User get
      in touch with her Buddha nature?

      2.5 Schemas aren't neutral
      In meta-utopia, the lab-coated guardians of epistemology sit down and
      rationally map out a hierarchy of ideas, something like this:
      Black holes

      Washing Machines
      Nuclear fission
      Nuclear fusion
      "Mean Devil Woman" Louisiana Hot-Sauce

      In a given sub-domain, say, Washing Machines, experts agree on
      sub-hierarchies, with classes for reliability, energy consumption,
      color, size, etc.
      This presumes that there is a "correct" way of categorizing ideas, and
      that reasonable people, given enough time and incentive, can agree on
      the proper means for building a hierarchy.

      Nothing could be farther from the truth. Any hierarchy of ideas
      necessarily implies the importance of some axes over others. A
      manufacturer of small, environmentally conscious washing machines
      would draw a hierarchy that looks like this:

      Energy consumption:
      Water consumption:

      While a manufacturer of glitzy, feature-laden washing machines would
      want something like this:

      The conceit that competing interests can come to easy accord on a
      common vocabulary totally ignores the power of organizing principles
      in a marketplace.

      2.6 Metrics influence results
      Agreeing to a common yardstick for measuring the important stuff in
      any domain necessarily privileges the items that score high on that
      metric, regardless of those items' overall suitability. IQ tests
      privilege people who are good at IQ tests, Nielsen Ratings privilege
      30- and 60-minute TV shows (which is why MTV doesn't show videos any
      more -- Nielsen couldn't generate ratings for three-minute
      mini-programs, and so MTV couldn't demonstrate the value of
      advertising on its network), raw megahertz scores privilege Intel's
      CISC chips over Motorola's RISC chips.
      Ranking axes are mutually exclusive: software that scores high for
      security scores low for convenience, desserts that score high for
      decadence score low for healthiness. Every player in a metadata
      standards body wants to emphasize their high-scoring axes and
      de-emphasize (or, if possible, ignore altogether) their low-scoring

      It's wishful thinking to believe that a group of people competing to
      advance their agendas will be universally pleased with any hierarchy
      of knowledge. The best that we can hope for is a detente in which
      everyone is equally miserable.

      2.7 There's more than one way to describe something
      "No, I'm not watching cartoons! It's cultural anthropology."

      "This isn't smut, it's art."

      "It's not a bald spot, it's a solar panel for a sex-machine."

      Reasonable people can disagree forever on how to describe something.
      Arguably, your Self is the collection of associations and descriptors
      you ascribe to ideas. Requiring everyone to use the same vocabulary to
      describe their material denudes the cognitive landscape, enforces
      homogeneity in ideas.

      And that's just not right.

      3. Reliable metadata
      Do we throw out metadata, then?
      Of course not. Metadata can be quite useful, if taken with a
      sufficiently large pinch of salt. The meta-utopia will never come into
      being, but metadata is often a good means of making rough assumptions
      about the information that floats through the Internet.

      Certain kinds of implicit metadata is awfully useful, in fact. Google
      exploits metadata about the structure of the World Wide Web: by
      examining the number of links pointing at a page (and the number of
      links pointing at each linker), Google can derive statistics about the
      number of Web-authors who believe that that page is important enough
      to link to, and hence make extremely reliable guesses about how
      reputable the information on that page is.

      This sort of observational metadata is far more reliable than the
      stuff that human beings create for the purposes of having their
      documents found. It cuts through the marketing bullshit, the
      self-delusion, and the vocabulary collisions.

      Taken more broadly, this kind of metadata can be thought of as a
      pedigree: who thinks that this document is valuable? How closely
      correlated have this person's value judgments been with mine in times
      gone by? This kind of implicit endorsement of information is a far
      better candidate for an information-retrieval panacea than all the
      world's schema combined.