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December 1, 2001: Damning Metadata

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  • Louis Rosenfeld
    December 1, 2001: Damning Metadata I can t remember which IA blog pointed me to Doug Kaye s blog, but I found his frustration with metadata to be... well,
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      December 1, 2001: Damning Metadata

      I can't remember which IA blog pointed me to Doug Kaye's blog, but I found
      his frustration with metadata to be... well, frustrating.

      I'll get into why in just a moment, but first, it's interesting to note a
      bit of an anti-metadata backlash of late. The pendulum swings away: back
      in the mid-90s (boy, does it feel strange to say that!), Argus would try to
      sell clients on the value of developing controlled vocabularies and
      thesauri. We often heard this response: "Nope, we have this great new
      search engine, and it will solve all of our users' information problems. No
      need to ever manually 'touch' our content." Just like that. End of
      discussion.

      During the past year or two, a wave of painful realization swept these same
      folks. The search engine snake oil had dissolved, leaving a residue of poor
      performance and general dyspepsia. Now, finally believing that "Taxonomies
      are Chic," they were interested in hiring Argus to create vocabularies to
      describe their content. *All* of their content. Which, of course, was
      entirely unrealistic. And so we went about trying to convince these people
      *not* to classify everything, only the most important content.

      Now there must be some sort of counter-counter-movement afoot: people
      who've experimented with classification schemes, and were disappointed to
      find that, yet again, there was no silver bullet to be found, just as with
      search engines. I don't know if Doug Kaye is one of those poor souls
      afflicted with silver bulletitis, but he is down on metadata for two
      reasons:

      "First, every required step acts as a deterrent to the use of the system.
      I've found that to be true in every software product or web-based system
      with which I've been involved. In some cases (such as an on-line dating
      service for which I was CTO) I've actually tested it. The more you ask, the
      less likely people are to participate."

      Of course, Doug is raising an important point: metadata is about *process*
      as much as syntax and semantics. But intelligent metadata design doesn't
      ignore procedural issues, such as how the work is going to get done and
      who's going to do it. Sometimes it makes sense to have authors suggest
      metadata for their own content, sometimes separate subject matter experts,
      sometimes indexers, and sometimes you use software. In certain cases, you
      use some combination of the above. There are countless factors that
      influence these decisions, not the least of which are how dynamic and
      ephemeral your content is, how much of it there is, and how much you can
      spend on it.

      More from Doug:

      "Second, contrived taxonomies typically associated with metadata are a
      disaster. I've tested this, too. No one person--or committee--can design a
      taxonomy for the ideas of others. Library science is inadequate for the
      range of knowledge and thought are encountered with weblogs."

      Huh?

      Weblogs are certainly diverse, and classification, as noted above, is no
      panacea. But library science has done a passable job at classifying
      something even broader than weblogs: the entirety of human knowledge that
      is found in the Library of Congress. Sure, you'll find many problems with
      LoC classification, but considering its age and non-digital inception, you
      could do a lot worse. Certainly author-supplied keywords can be... a lot
      worse.

      Personally, I'm sure glad that that committee at the National Library of
      Medicine came up MESH headings to represent the ideas of all those medical
      researchers have been coming up with for years. Accessible medical research
      might have been what saved my dad's life last summer.

      Instead of throwing out babies with bathwater, we need to create value by
      selecting and combining the subset of architectural approaches--search
      engines and classification schemes included--that are most appropriate for
      each unique situation.

      I wish this damned pendulum would stop swinging soon.


      LINKS MENTIONED
      John Kaye's blog posting ::
      http://blogbook.weblogger.com/discuss/msgReader$83
      "Taxonomies are Chic" :: http://www.slabf.org/oxbrw114.PDF
      Library of Congress Classification ::
      http://fantasia.cs.msstate.edu/lcshdb/index.cgi
      Medical Subject Headings (MESH) :: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/meshhome.html
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