First we had content, then not long after that we had metadata, although no-one called it that. Now we need parametadata – the metadata about metadata!

Neither metadata nor parametadata are anything new, but what is new is how central they have become to all sorts of business processes. People think there is something modern and techie about metadata, but ever since the first author signed their initials on a piece of work, or added a title, we have had metadata. Librarians are just one group who have been using metadata for centuries.

Thanks to technological advances, there is now a huge amount of processing that can be done with metadata, indeed that needs to be done if we are to have any idea what assets we have available. Metadata has become the active driver of numerous business processes. You couldn’t operate a computer without the metadata that tells you the name of a file, its location, when it was last saved, etc. and this sort of metadata is so ubiquitous that nobody tends to think about it too much. Now metadata is so pervasive, it is becoming increasingly important to talk about it and define different aspects and types.

One key distinction is the one between objective and subjective metadata. Subjective metadata refers to classification, tagging, taxonomies, etc. This metadata is subjective because it is always possible to argue about it. Objective metadata on the other hand is uncontroversial and typically process-driven – a file format is what it is, the time the file was last saved might cause consternation after a PC crash, but is unarguable. However, there is actually surprisingly little uncontroversial metadata. Even something like a title can be edited and changed – what do you do when some content acquires a popular or folk title that is not the same as its official title? This happens a lot with comedy sketches and songs, but can also happen to names of projects, working groups, etc.

Parametadata (or meta-metadata) is another subset of metadata – it is the metadata about the metadata, giving its provenance, date of creation, technical specifications, etc. Once you start to think about metadata as content in its own right, it becomes obvious that just as you wish to track the author, title, and so on of the core content, so too you need to track the author(s), provenance, date of creation and latest update of the metadata as well. For subjective metadata, parametadata becomes hugely useful. Because you can have multiple classifications of an asset, it is very important to track the source – distinguishing between author added keywords, indexer keywords, and folksonomic tags, for example – so that people can tell where a tag has come from.

As long as you know where tags have come from, you can decide whether or not you want to trust in their authority. In an increasingly muddled web, it is helpful to be told the source of a comment or an opinion in order to try to distinguish sound information from propaganda or uninformed speculation. Anecdotally, many people who were initially excited about citizen review sites – rating hotels, etc. – have now given up on them on the grounds that the people who contribute to them tend to have some kind of axe – or worse – to grind, so you can’t take them seriously. Even reviews that aim to be fair may not be relevant if the reviewer is too dissimilar to the reader. The perfect holiday for a group of teenagers is unlikely to be what a retired couple are looking for. So any review needs to carry sufficient information so that the reader can work out how relevant the content is to them. A good review site would carry a range of reviews aimed at different audiences.

Similarly, a rich navigation system needs to offer a range of tags and taxonomies, but these will only be useful when there is sufficient parametadata to tell the user where each scheme or tag came from, who created it, how up to date it is, etc. From a user perspective, being able to choose from a range of well-documented navigation systems means they can make an informed choice about whether to have fun with the randomness of folksonomic tags, to follow a specialist taxonomy in order to learn how a subject is handled by experts, or to use a guide constructed by the content curators for a general audience.

Interface designers can use the parametadata to make different sources of metadata distinct – with different visual or other cues, for example, to indicate different navigation environments. This means you can create a range of different “navigation worlds” and let your users wander to and fro while always making sure they know where – in terms of trust and authority – they are.