Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Intention, Attention and Metadata

2.0 is all the rage. People seem to be attaching it to every word they can think of: web, media, marketing, identity, attention, brisket (that might just be my Grandma). As a term, it’s only meaning comes in describing that we’ve moved past 1.0. It’s all but lost its true identity, which comes from the version numbering of software. Semantics behind us, though, the shift is as real as they come.

As we all know, digital technology has opened a giant hole in the side of many a business. The media world was the first and hardest hit because, amongst other reasons, it’s they who have relied most on controlling distribution to make money. That’s not to say they’re doomed, just that if they hope to survive they’ve got to change their strategies. My point is that this is bigger than buzzwords.

As it exists now, and for the last hundred years, the media industry makes a living by shoving their content out into the wild but keeping it on a leash, so as not to wander too far. Media was essentially a conversation starter, not an active participant. Until digital technology came along, there really wasn’t any good way for them to get unbundled and involved.

Unbundling is about separating the meat from the bone so that everyone can easily take a bite. Media organizations need to open themselves and allow their content to join the conversation. To do this requires injecting as much valuable metadata into the pieces as possible. (Non-geeks: metadata is the additional information that can be attached to a piece of information that gives it context. A simple example is that every time you take a digital picture, embedded within that file is the date, time and model of camera that took the photo.)

This is bigger than just media, though. In an excellent article titled Why Things Matter [PDF] Julian Bleecker writes of blogjects: objects that blog. Essentially the idea is that once objects are connected to the internet they can start to enter conversations. By aggregating their metadata, these objects can bring valuable insights that we may not have been privy to before. In English this time: throw some tags on some whales that track water temperature and pollution, then publish that information on the web and you get a firsthand look at the real effects of pollution on the environment. More than anything, though, I walked away from reading this paper with a hankering for more metadata (although it’s just a small part of what Bleecker is discussing).

Metadata can help us understand our world in entirely new ways. Wouldn’t you like to know how temperature effects you? How about heart rate? What about a shirt that ‘knows’ everywhere it’s been and the manufacturing processes at each point? The more information that’s embedded, the bigger the possibilities to play. Being able to take this information and create new tools (mashups) is where this starts to get really exciting.

The thing is, much of the most interesting information is not the stuff that exists on the surface. Attention is at the center of much of the media 2.0 debate at the moment. What is it and why does it matter? Some argue it’s intention that’s important, but I disagree. Scott Karp sums up my problem nicely: “Media 2.0 will fail without Marketing 2.0, and the evolution of Marketing 2.0 is being impeded by a fundamental principle of human nature — given infinite choice, most of us DON’T KNOW exactly what we want,” he explains. Intention’s the wrong direction, but I wonder if attention’s still not enough either? After all, just the word leaves us feeling as though it’s stuff we’re already aware of, at least in one way or another. Wouldn’t the most interesting learning come from collecting all the metadata we can get our hands, both that which we consciously interact with and that which we don’t?

Like Scott, this is where I start to trail off a bit. I don’t know that I have the answers . . . yet. I do know that for media businesses to survive they’re going to think about how they’re going to best prepare their unbundled pieces to enter the world’s conversations. Anyhow, I’ll keep thinking about it . . .

March 13, 2006