Metadata Learns Social Cues: Sugarcoating the Tagging Pill

By Marc Solomon posted 11-16-2012 13:16


The signs are unmistakable. Tagging is how we keep our priorities straight and even how we define the contours of our online profiles. Labeling the buckets is finally out of the shadows. These are not closet organizers. These are our virtual neighbors who don’t manage information for a living. In 2013 we’re no longer scribbling in the margins. We’re talking a healthy brand loyalty to tags.

It’s true. And now I know why. Metadata is no longer the exclusive domain of taxonomists, catalogers, and classification freaks like us:

  • A hashtag of a cheezy prime time hospital drama prominently displayed on the lower left TV screen for the duration of the show
  • An in-box of email contacts with a notification that you've been circled, along with a "do-you-know" rejoinder of some contacts in their circles
  • Some self-described labels for what I do as an information professional that are validated with the endorsements of my social media connections

Does this sound like a day in your virtual life? In each case the proposition is this:

You can find new communities while strengthening your existing networks, clarify your personal brand, and better organize your groupings and online priorities. Better yet, this is achieved without even breaking a virtual sweat. All you need is to trust in persistent, non-invasive, and easily definable metadata.

As a KM grunt I've been on the wrong end of a losing battle to get users to describe their creations so that they're as findable as those creators would have them worth finding. That kind of firewall insider talk is about as persuasive as a spam filter that lets in the white noise of indifference normally associated with political ad buys in battleground states. 

So here's the key question:

How do we enterprise content folks get our colleagues to eat their metadata spinach? To strain the analogy further, how do we make sure the spinach is fresh and not canned? How do we insure that an information management experience in our environments is as simple and productive as the ones our users have out in the search and social media landscape?

Scripting the Cues

For starters we're not trading in abstractions like those placeholders for the intellectual capital that people carry around in their heads. Yes, I mean documents. With it brings the sloppy relations between creators and their creations. Give those domain experts 256K of free text to hang themselves and they'll make the same tired word choices as the next guy. Dare them to trust their own intuitive judgement and we're back at monkeys pawing typewriter keys as probability factors for authoring great American novels.

The suggest-a-tag formulas that goes down in Google Circles, LinkedIn endorsements, and Facebook's Like button deviates from how information professionals create enterprise tagging structures in two important ways:

* Simplicity -- High relief social media tags are toggles. They're binary. They're on or they're off. A cinch to express. Even easier to decipher in the aggregate. Want to know what you're best known for among your peers? Tally the counts of endorsements by the skill tags you append to your profile. In the more formal orthodoxy of corporate taxonomies, an unpopulated description field of an internal file is a sign of doubt, not just about what it means but whether it's worth finding out.

* Self-identity -- Social media tagging is more ... well ... sociable. When we label our job experience according to skills we're not just updating our professional assets for potential recruiters. We're conforming to a standard of who we are and what we do. In effect, we stand-out by fitting into a specific skillset or job box. On the other hand, traffickers in trend-spotting and buzzword production such as research groups, management consultants, and academics invest a great effort in trademarking their outputs. These categorical distinctions may produce some self-fulfilling evidence that they emerge as the dominant voices in the seismic shifts they define. To the rest of us it's either the gospel from a pioneering visionary or a lot of hot air from a self-referential blowhard.

Social Graces

Don't get me wrong. On social media who we associate with, what we endorse, and how we burnish our credentials into off-the-shelf tagging boxes can be just as ego-driven as the most self-involved market analyst thought leadership cum laude. They key for content managers is to architect our platforms so they reflect the aspirations and experiences of our user base:

  1. Make sure that common and recurring standards, formulas, methods or templates are within the grasp of your users whether we're talking words, spreadsheets, or graphical materials.
  2. Let users contextualize their problem-solving by revealing how they piece together solutions or reassemble different artifacts, tools, and references to deliver on the requirements they're addressing.
  3. Enable Active Directory or whatever permissions structure that governs your network be accessible to users as a tagging source. It's helpful to match authors to login IDs but it's equally telling to pull in the colleagues that content providers notify that their efforts are now available. Think of this periphery as the cc:line in emails.
  4. Avoid point-based rating systems conferred by anyone actually. They're subjective without the consistency and even-handedness of the one-vote-per-user representation of social tags. A more sincere and credible way to quantify the value of search results is to pre-populate metrics like most prolific contributors, most popular downloads, or best of all, scoring systems that reward our colleagues for tweeting or curating the inputs worthy of their communities' attention and involvement.

The Tags that Bind Us

The end result is that whether our users can have Google-like clarity in their search results, or Facebook-like transparency on their intranets is no longer the right question. It's whether they'll do the work required to clue us in on their priorities, experience, and peer aspirations. But this needs to be architected before that expression level can be articulated inside our firewalls. It's incumbent on us as system developers and community managers to provide ways for this new form of self-description to flourish.

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