In a vlog titled “Google Is Alive!” vlogger Hank Green explored the idea of what he thought could be a definition of life: “Life wants. If thing-X requires thing-Y in order to continue its existence. And thing-X shows attempts to acquire thing-Y then thing-X, apparently wanting thing-Y, is alive.” (Green) As the discussion in the comments section of the video centred around the idea of living technologies, Green later clarifies his definition of “want” as “reacts to it’s surroundings in order to fulfill its needs.” (Green) This way of thinking about information being alive pertains to the publishing industry in its future with metadata. This essay will work to support two ideas concerning metadata: how to deal with metadata in the present and how to think about metadata in the future.
My essay rests on the idea that publishers are currently not utilizing metadata as best they could. Metadata is crucial to selling books online, especially in an age where we consume online information at a greater rate than almost anything else. Good metadata increases discoverability, search engine optimization, and can attract more readers through categorization. Books sold through online vendors need as much information as possible in order to be found by consumers. “The more information available about the product, the more easily the customer can make an informed purchase decision. Additionally, selling online requires a higher level of accuracy due to the diverse nature of online customers.” (Elakehal) Whatever the reason (lack of time, interest, skill, or funds) publishers are missing out on sales because of lackluster metadata.
The simple, long-term solution to this problem is to ingrain metadata as an essential part of every publishing house, regardless of the size of the publishing house. This is a near-future, attainable goal as learning how to optimize metadata has become easier to do in recent years. Resources on ONIX, databases, and keywords are becoming more prevalent and accessible (Product Metadata Best Practices). But publishing houses have tight deadlines and hectic schedules, so it will take time for the majority of houses to become metadata experts. And it is difficult to predict what evolutions will have taken place by the time this occurs.
Right now, many publishers and online book retailers are dealing with weak metadata with no “quick-fix.” But what if there was a “quick-fix”? What if there was a way data could be collected and organized from the internet’s many resources (the Google bot alone would suffice) and sent off to those who needed it most? This could be done if there was an application or database that acted as a sort of metadata Wikipedia. Users could input data and information into the database about titles that could then be easily accessed by online retailers. While this does not address new titles being published, thousands of books that are currently being sold online and are missing important metadata could be given another chance at discovering their readership. The community of readers is strong enough to maintain and interact with this model of governing information. Wikis are a relatively simple medium that most internet users are familiar and comfortable with. Book information can change even after the book is published, so this model would allow continual updates to metadata tags which would then allow this data to live in the present. Online retailers could pull this “live data” (I will return to this idea later on) onto their sites and have constantly up-to-date information about the titles.
The obvious concerns with this form of data collection is accuracy and user-qualifications. Titles could be updated and elaborated on by volunteers with the same principles that govern wikipedia and wikis: “It is inherent in Wikipedia’s editing model that misleading information can be added, but over time quality is anticipated to improve in a form of group learning as editors reach consensus, so that substandard edits will very rapidly be removed.” (Reliability of Wikipedia) While it holds more credibility than most like to admit, wikipedia’s accuracy can not always be relied on. Especially when copyright and sales are part of the process. Author and publisher copyrights are different for every title. For example, a title might not be authorized to have an excerpt uploaded online but a user with no legal responsibilities could do this very easily. How would these legal concerns be monitored? Furthermore if users, knowingly or unknowingly, create inaccurate information, the success of a title’s sales would be directly affected. Metadata could be manipulated to further a user’s personal agenda towards an author or title (for example, through propaganda or boycotting). Because this data would be connected to contracts, copyright agreements, and eventually financial transactions there would have to be a monitoring system at specific stages of the data sharing. I admit this is a symptom-ary fix to the larger issue of publishers dealing with metadata responsibly, however the implementation of this application could work to increase the present metadata efficiency of titles already published thus increasing sales.
To think about metadata in the future is to speculate about the efficiency of data and how it can work independently to support publishers. Metadata can be made more useful if we can get past the intricacies and difficulties of actually gathering and sorting the data (something a program could do with ease). Metadata is data, not information. Information is what is learned or perceived from data. Whereas data is “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis” (Google) (See also Ueijo). Someone, or something, must transform that data into information to make it relevant or useful. It has to have context or given meaning to make it information that we can learn or benefit from it. Returning to Green’s “life wants” theory: if metadata, or an application that dealt with metadata, was given the objective (the want) to sort, organize, and find data for metadata fields then this application could “live” by creating “live data” to support the publishing industry in a completely new way. Rather than the Wikipedia model which puts users as the driving force for new and curated information, the technology itself must find and curate its own information that we can then use. This application would be reacting to its online surroundings in order to attempt to fulfill its wants, therefore fulfilling Green’s definition of life.
Elakehal, Emad Eldeen. “Publishers: Time to Shape up Your Metadata!” Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
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“Product Metadata Best Practices.” Book Industry Study Group (BISG).
“Reliability of Wikipedia.” Wikipedia.
Ueijo, Wayne. Ted Conversation Reply to Andrew Wells. February 24 2014. Ted.
Athitakis, Mark. “The Problem with Metadata.” January – February 2013. The University of Chicago Magazine.
Morais, Betsy. “A Book Is A Start-Up.” March 14 2013. The New Yorker.
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