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Where’s the metadata, the anthropology?

Though I joined the lovefest over this video at Savage Minds; shared it with dozens of people last week; and am genuinely grateful it was produced and posted; I have some problems with the representation of Web 2.0 it makes.

Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

The focus on form and content a bit misleading. Sure, XML, enables you to separate abstract data (i.e. the so-called “content”) from rendition information (form, or better, formatting), but that’s hardly the heart of Web 2.0. Metadata, middleware, an interchange format that makes document processing and data processing one and the same, that’s the heart of it. Though the video emphasizes that XML facilitates automatic data exchange, and talks about tagging as teaching the machine, metadata is never mentioned by name.

Mostly, I find the video problematic as a work of cultural anthropology because it so readily serves up the party line of the Web 2.0 initiative in the native tongue of marketing: “Digital text can do better,” XML leaves us “free from formatting constraints,” no need to “know complicated code,” “no longer just linking information, Web 2.0 is linking people.” This last one strikes me as particularly odd coming from an anthropologist. Were people not connected by the Web in 1994? A lot of complicated codes are required to blog and use social networking tools, the fact that most of them aren’t machine-readable shouldn’t keep a social scientist from recognizing them as code.

5 Comments - Join in the conversation below »

  1. So it’s not as simple as just signing up for Facebook; by responding to the “friending,” you’re giving in to the whole worldview of Facebook. At least in that context.

    Comment by John Labovitz — September 4, 2007 @ 6:19 pm

  2. Exactly! That’s the fear. I should have put it so clearly.

    But, of course, signing-up is the only way to be part of the conversation. As Ian Bogost concludes, it is a “means [of] posing difficult questions” about Facebook and other social networking and lifestream products served from computational and commercial frames–hybrid monsters indeed. Mind you, I love monsters as much as the next geek, but that’s no reason to be rash.

    Comment by Jenny Cool — September 4, 2007 @ 6:33 pm

  3. Shades of Ionesco. But, in this case, I’m personally glad you joined in.
    One thing with ethnography is that, by temporarily inhabiting this world, you do get to share in a different worldview. But the other part of the deal is that, as an ethnographer, you get to go from one of those worlds to another, at will.

    Personally, I’ve been finding my Facebook experience very pleasant overall. Many things, such as the ones you note, are quite unfamiliar to me. And I’m having more fun now that I have blocked the “zombie” and other nagging applications. But, overall, I find this world fascinating. It reminds me of my experience on (English-speaking) university/college campuses in the United States. But it’s still compatible enough with French-speakers outside universities that I was able to connect local friends through my network and experience a new form of online friendship.
    I would even say that Facebook can be more satisfying that blogging. It’s certainly more compatible with my views about open social groups.

    Anyhoo, (belated) welcome to Facebook.

    Comment by Alexandre — September 6, 2007 @ 4:17 pm

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