You’re walking down the road. All you can see is blue-black asphalt with two lines of yellow painted down the middle, because you’re staring straight at the ground and nothing else. You’re bored out of your mind, not to mention lost. Then you look up and around to see the entire picture (or at least a more complete picture). You see the sky, the bushes, the trees. You see where you are. And then you pull out a map. You can see all the places around you; not only where you are, but where you came from, and where you’re going.
This is the metaphor that Deepak Jagdish makes at the Ted Talk that he and Daniel Smilkov, graduate students at MIT and creators of a tool called Immersion, gave about the value of metadata and the role that Immersion plays in metadata (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2a8pDbCabg). In the Ted Talk, Deepak claims that metadata gives you a far more complete idea of what you’re doing online, just as looking at a map or looking up from the road gives you a far more complete idea of what you’re doing on a road trip. The tool Immersion shows you metadata about your email account so that instead of simply seeing the typical email user interface, you can see network graphs about who you interact with, how your interactions have changed over time, and more.
After reading about metadata in Anne J. Gilliland’s Setting the Stage, I felt so lost. I was overwhelmed by the seemingly dry lists and explanations of what metadata is and how it can be used. To me, even after rereading passages multiple times, metadata was still a vague concept, nearly as blurry in my head as photos of Bigfoot. I decided to do what most people confused about something written do: I searched for it on Youtube so that I could see or at least hear someone explain it to me.
I found this Ted Talk and, although the speakers were discussing only a very small and specific element of metadata, I suddenly understood the value of this often behind-the-scenes information. It’s a new way of seeing the world, and it will take some getting used to, but as Deepak described, it can give us so much more information beyond what we see on the surface. For instance, just from looking at the details of how many emails Deepak sent over the course of a few years, a man who barely knew him was able to tell that there was a significant change in his life within a certain six-month span because the number of emails he was sending suddenly dropped. Metadata can be used as a clue to something bigger.
As such avid users of technology, how deeply should we delve into metadata? Should we leave it to those such as librarians and those in charge of creating databases, or should we take it upon ourselves to learn more? And if we do choose to delve into metadata, what sort of metadata should we explore?