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Small Wonders: Pay close attention to your metadata

November 16, 2012

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. And I am already annoyed.

Though delicious, it will be the same meal, cooked the same way and eaten with the same people. The same tired stories will be shared, the same confounding statements will tick me off, and we’ll end the night painfully full, leftovers in hand, dreading the hairpin turn into the insanity of Christmas shopping and overspending.

Yeah. I’m a little grumpy. I think I've got bad metadata.

Though I have a passing knowledge of things technical, just enough to get me into trouble before running to the computer repair shop, I work with geniuses.

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Seriously. These guys make computers sing and dance, beam digital TV signals thousands of miles into the sky, bounce them off invisible satellites and into homes across the country. All so parents can have a few moments of peace to burn dinner, pay the bills or stare at the dusty ceiling fan thinking, “I really should clean that. Maybe tomorrow.”

I am a woeful wordsmith among bit-rate blacksmiths, and they have taught me more than they will ever know, not just about computer technology, but about the way the world works. And there is one word, one thing, that always seems to be at the center of every technical discussion: metadata.

Often referred to as “data about data,” Webopedia.com says, “Metadata describes how and when and by whom a particular set of data was collected, and how the data is formatted.”

Metadata is a small file that rides along with a big file; a little information booklet that comes with bigger, more intricate bundles of files. The little file — the metadata — is a set of generic details about the big guy, providing much needed instruction and insight.

For you analog thinkers, consider a book. Metadata is the information before and after the story, the author’s name and biography, summary, table of contents, copyright, publisher's information and page numbers.

But not only is metadata descriptive, it is structural. Structural metadata tells other systems how to deal with that host file, its physical makeup, what it likes, what it doesn’t, how to work with that file as it passes through the matrix of this world.

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