The New Work of Composing

Composing with Metadata in Mind

How do I navigate this? || References

Contingent Narrations of Standards in Flight


Synthesis by Matthew W. Wilson

Click on the map to read more about the synthesis layer.

How does one practice “Standards in the Making” (SITM)?  As Curtis notes, “SITM as a critical practice must inquire into the “work” that description does across information archives.”  Certainly, as a critical tradition, the practice of SITM involves inquiry. This kind of inquiry must ask, Curtis continues, “what categories and terms differently constitute the photo as a historical object?”  For Curtis, in his analysis of the “Negro Boy” photo from the Flickr Commons, tagging is understood as a site of struggle, in that users can potentially counterpose tags in an effort to re-organize the digital artifact. In this sense, categories and comments make the archive.

Perhaps this is what the Library of Congress (LoC) had hoped for, that users would add information to the photo archive, thereby making the archive. Unfortunately, as Jentery articulates in his reading of the LoC report, the information that users added were largely not useful to the LoC. The Flickr Commons archive became a space where users mimicked the existing categorical schemas, by adding tags to photos using the text already of the photo — text which would inherently organize the photo within Flickr. However, Jentery finds some hope in his discussion of the “A-31” tag, that the adding of this kind of information is “circulated with the image to other domains.”  Jentery highlights the potentiality of this sort of system, and quoting Curtis, there is a sense that from within this system might emerge new sorts of readings, that might “reorganize collective experience and the cultural archive in the name of different stories and identities.”

My reading of the Flickr Commons argues that because the user-added information was already standardized, the potential for multiple readings—for emergent standards—was already captured by the system itself. In other words, the machinic language of tags, notes, and comments fixes the possibility for treating the artifact situationally. It remains “merely descriptive,” as Jamie writes. At the edges of my treating, and perhaps in contrast, Jamie further notes that we might find moments where this “argumentative or evaluative” strategy enters in. He finds that certain debates and contestations occur stretched across the terrain of the photo, in the form of annotated boxes. In this moment, Jamie marks a “new social discourse space where arguments are mobilized through metadata itself.”

However, I believe we must further inquire as to what bounds this new space. My critique was not that the users produced tags that were “redundant and merely descriptive”—one viewpoint that Jentery explores—but that the systematic approach to standardizing user input (coded as tag, photo note, or comment) leaves little room for less-than-anemic readings. In other words, this folksonomy as metadata is designed to immobilize discourse. Jamie reads this a step further, to say that the “rhetorical situation of each instance of metadata, then, must be understood in order to reach a useful rhetorical analysis of the metadata as discourse.”  For Jamie, the tags, notes, and comments lack sufficient rhetorical situation and therefore cannot function as traditional metadata — where metadata served the purpose of providing the situation within which a discourse could be analyzed. My critique is, perhaps, less forgiving. I argue that this instance of folksonomy functions too much like traditional metadata, and therefore cannot (in its current iteration) provide us an example of what we mean by ”Standards in the Making.”

To extend our thinking of SITM from the practice of critical inquiry to the practice of creating conditions such that standards emerge, I outline SITM’s commitments:

-  to remain open to making data situational, and in doing so;
-  to invite cross-readings;
-  to underscore dissension;
-  to decouple artifact from single, unified author;
-  to make the artifact multiply; and
-  to make these move.

While it is an imperfect illustration, I imagine the differences between a LoC photo within the Flickr Commons and a piece of narrative within GoogleDocs. We have discussed the affordances and constraints within the Flickr Commons; the objects remain artifacts; annotations function as organizational points of entry; authors and their categories fade into the system. Within GoogleDocs, a collection of authors can effectively cause text to move. A complex piece of software tidies these moments behind the scenes. Versions are tracked, while multiple instantiations are spun into new objects. The object becomes decentralized. From its instability emerges a series of temporary fixes; they are printed or emailed and shared with others, before descending back into (re)production by other authors. The GoogleDoc environment is far from chaos. Underlying coding systems manage the multiple contributions, tracking each one, without being visibly surveillant. Authors create and standards emerge.

In terms of visual media, we might think of another Google invention: the GoogleMap. Here, authors create points, lines, and areas of interest, thereby composing a map. The data are not empty of arguments; rather, the data records themselves are discursive—literally making meaning on the map surface (even if understood as fundamentally binary: has meaning or does not). Even further, participants in OpenStreetMap actually compose the map surface, generating a basemap that competes with other commercially-available datasets (see Haklay, Singleton, & Parker, 2008). The representation of geographical space is iteratively composed. However, where this illustration becomes imperfect is around the notion of metadata. In these multi-authored environments, the situations which give rise to data are by-and-large lost (although, less so in OpenStreetMap). Information placed on the “map” are certainly descriptive; while nothing prohibits interpretative readings, the tools are less optimized for narrating these moves.

I’d like to offer that what is needed, perhaps, is not an entirely new authoring environment to support the new work of composing, but merely a different conceptual understanding of what our endpoints are in this endeavor (namely, that endpoints are a somewhat fruitless endeavor!). To practice SITM, we must be open to situational data — wherein data are never truly packagable, but are necessarily mapped (for lack of a better word) and therefore contingent. In thinking SITM, data are always-already practices, in motion, and therefore never resolved. This is not to say that we cannot narrate them, but that our narrations are also contingent, temporary fixes about that which may already be gone, in flight, or remade.