Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Data about data

Metadata literally means “data about data.” That can be quite confusing and vague, so what is metadata really?

In “Introduction to Metadata,” Anne Gilliland sets the stage by providing the audience with multiple definitions and views of metadata. The 1990’s was quite accurate, defining it as the internal and external documentation of data contained in an information system. More specifically, metadata is about an information object. An information object embodies content, context, and structure. Thus, metadata does not have to be digital; it can be recorded in card catalogs, vertical files, and more. Though metadata is a broad term, there are specific types. For example, library metadata includes indexes, abstracts, and bibliographic records. As technology advances, it has expanded the market of metadata in creating automated means such as “metadata mining, metadata harvesting, and Web crawling.” Evidently, computer capabilities are becoming increasingly powerful and sophisticated. Paul Conway, though, takes a positive spin on metadata and says that the digital world maintains objects’ intellectual integrity.

However, does metadata cross the (privacy) line? An article by the Wall Street Journal titled “Metadata Can Expose Person’s Identity Even Without Name” speaks for itself. MIT’s research proves that, despite anonymity, this analytic formula can readily identify a person’s unique purchasing pattern almost 100% of the time; and with a little bit more research into public profiles (such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, “check-in” applications), they could place names to the numbers. It is not so alarming though, because this new technique is purposed for firms, advertisers, and retailers for better advertising.

Bottom line, I believe the digital world relies on metadata. It functions to create, recontextualize, validate, organize, and preserve and there are clear benefits. Out of those, I find its role in effective researching most significant. I think Wall Street Journal says it best, “metabase is not as important as content but remarkably revelatory.”

2 Comments

  1. I agree with your definition of metadata. After all, as the reading explains, all information is data and data can be collected on that. Metadata can potentially be very useful in categorizing and simplifying information, which is why the question of whether it is too invasive is quite a valid one. There is no doubt about its utility, but as to whether its utility can be validated is a different story. The world does rely on this data, but what happens when the world becomes too reliant on it? The speaker who spoke on Thursday showed a very interesting video of a person attempting to order pizza. The speaker on the other end knew all of his information to an uncanny degree. Not only did she know everything about the man attempting to order pizza, she also suggested for him to do things. At the rate our technology is improving, unless several restrictions are implemented, privacy may completely disappear.

  2. First off, thank you for clearing up some of my confusion about metadata, because I got a bit lost in the reading. But your description of it seems to hit the nail on the head, and it makes metadata much simpler to understand. I have to agree with you about how significant metadata is to the digital world, particularly when it comes to organizing information. I can see what you mean about how it would play a large role in research – compiling metadata would no doubt make weeding through sources or tracking down specific topics much easier than examining individual files or documents. And as you mentioned about the whole MIT study, I think you’re right in saying that it’s not particularly alarming. Considering how advertisements seem to be targeted toward specific people, especially on the Internet, it’s really no surprise that marketers are able to look at metadata to find individuals. I can’t say that diminishes the creepy factor to all that prying, though.

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