So there I was at the sink in the break room, washing the tea stains out of my oversized coffee mug, thinking about tags versus permanent metadata and ofness and aboutness, and I think there is a great rule-of-thumb kind of correlation between the two: information that counts as “ofness” should be semi-permament metadata, and information that is more “aboutness” is more appropriate for tags. But what am I talking about?
Most people understand the concept of a tag–it’s a word or phrase that you attach to something digital (an image, a blogpost, a song…) for a variety of reasons. It could be a tag added to make it easier for you to find something later (e.g. tagging an article “master’s paper”,) or added in the hope that the tag will be a beacon for other users to find it (e.g. “best chocolate chip cookie recipe”.)
So what do we mean by ofness and aboutness? I can’t remember if I’ve ever written anything about these terms in tha blahg. They were a huge part of my master’s paper so it is hard to remember where all I’ve gone on about them. Essentially, ofness is an objective description of what can be observed about an item. Aboutness is more intangible, subjective information that an item may suggest or represent. My go-to example is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photo. It is OF a woman and a child, it is OF the Great Depression, it is OF black and white film. It is ABOUT poverty, motherhood, perseverance, any number of intangible adjectives that the image may suggest to the person viewing it.
How does this relate to tags versus permanent metadata?
During grad school I had an internship doing image cataloging for a special library, and it involved deciding what information should be permanently associated with an image in our database and what information could be covered in user-generated tags. A quick way to describe our general thought process is that “ofness” went into the permanent database record and “aboutness” was left to users tagging. For example, a photo of a magnolia blossom would have metadata that described it as a flower, contained proprietary information for reuse, and occasionally provided more specific information such as the particular species. All of this is objective information that can’t really be argued with–it will always be an image of a flower, and it will always be credited to WikiMedia. The subjective, “aboutness” information could be added by users; maybe the image would be great for an upcoming presentation, and the users working on that presentation could add an appropriate tag that they could then use to search and retrieve. It is helpful information for a small group of people, but since it is temporary and subjective it is better added with a tag.
So, if you’re working on a project to organize digital items (photos, articles, a wiki page…) think about whether the information users will want is objective (ofness) or subjective (aboutness) as you decide whether the data would be more helpful as permanent metadata affixed to the item or a tag applied by a user.