the long tale: another book metadata app 06.20.2008, 11:00 AM
posted by sebastian mary
More fun with book metadata. Hot on the heels of Bkkeepr comes Booklert, an app that lets you keep track of the Amazon rank of your (or anyone else's) book. Writer, thinker and social media maven Russell Davies speculated that he'd love to have such a thing for keeping track of his book. No sooner was this said than MCQN had built it; so far it has few users, but fairly well-connected ones.
Reading MCQN's explanation I get a picture of Booklert as a time-saving tool for hypercompetitive and stat-obsessed writers, or possibly as a kind of masochistic entertainment for publishers morbidly addicted to seeing their industry flounder. Then perhaps I'm being uncharitable: assuming you accept the (deeply dodgy) premise that the only meaningful book sales are those conducted through Amazon, Booklert - or something similar - could be used to create personalized bestseller lists, adding a layer of market data to the work of trusted reviewers and curators. I'd be interested to find out which were the top-selling titles in the rest of the Institute's personal favourites list; I'd also be interested to find out what effect a few weeks' endorsement by a high-flying member of the digerati might have on a handful of books.
But whether or not it is, as Davies asserts, "exactly the sort of thing a major book business could have thought of, should have thought of, but didn't", Booklert illustrates the extent to which, in the context of the Web, most of the key developments around the future of the book do not concern the form, purposes or delivery mechanism of the book. They concern metadata: how it is collected, who owns it, who can make use of it. Whether you're talking DRM, digitization, archiving, folksonomies or feeds, the Web brings a tendency - because an ability - to see the world less in terms of static content than in terms of dynamic patterns, flows and aggregated masses of user-generated behavior. When thus measured as units in a dynamic system, what the books themselves actually contain is only of secondary importance. What does this say about the future of serious culture in the world of information visualization?
Gary Frost on June 20, 2008 9:58 PM:
How much dynamic rating could be sustained if books were not static? Immutability of physical books is an attribute and the bibliographic utility of metadata and its dynamic processing would collapse without static content. My guess is that publishers are too busy producing paper books in record numbers to be disturbed by yet another engine of their new meaning and value.
Lisa Spangenberg on June 21, 2008 2:09 AM:
You might want to look at TitleZ too. Plus there's an expensive but detail-laden service that agents and publishers subscribe too, whose name escapes me, but it provides detailed breakdowns, good enough that agents use it to track the accuracy of publishers' regarding returns and sales.
bowerbird on June 21, 2008 2:48 PM:
> When thus measured as units in a dynamic system,
> what the books themselves actually contain
> is only of secondary importance.
bob stein on June 22, 2008 11:43 AM:
I think that Gary Frost and Bowerbird fundamentally miss the point that metadata IS content. the problem that your post raises is that in a world where metadata is so easily generated on so many continua, how will it exist within a complex ecology of content. will it help us understand the subject better, to think more clearly, to collaborate more effectively? or will it distract us from the questions at hand?
Gary Frost on June 22, 2008 6:03 PM:
"...miss the point that metadata IS content. the problem that your post raises is that in a world where metadata is so easily generated on so many continua, how will it exist within a complex ecology of content. will it help us understand the subject better, to think more clearly, to collaborate more effectively? or will it distract us from the questions at hand?"
Your point appears to ask more questions. There is content in a piano recital and in an Amazon profile. In that respect everything is content. There is another point that piano recitals and Amazon profiles derive from print transactions. And down steam there is lurking the paper Wiki. My point was that physical media provide an fixed reference for digital readership and culture.
Where I have if:book qualms is at the front door. If the future of the book is magnified by digital technologies including new modes of transmission, delivery and reading skills, then what are these books?
Advise me here; is Google Earth a book? Is it published by the planet itself? Does it need any electricity or additional reader interface? Can it be used in the future to transmit the past? Will it cross cultural divides impassively?
sebastian mary on June 23, 2008 8:38 AM:
I actually disagree with Bob's easy description of metadata as 'content' in its own right. Unless you can parse dynamic data streams in your head, (while I know someone who can speak in barcode, I've yet to meet someone who can do this) metadata is not content in any human-readable sense until it has been fed through a visualization engine of some sort. For example, metadata about the frequency of word occurrence is not 'content' until it appears in a tag cloud or similar. If I feed this comment into Wordle, the result is this. Arguably that's a new kind of content. But it's misleading to elide the raw data streams which form the basis of such representations with the content around which these data streams accumulate.
Which brings me to my second clarification. I certainly don't mean to suggest that it'll make no difference to these streams of metadata if henceforth we publish only gibberish. Remixable Amazon bestseller lists clearly don't carry on behaving the same if all the books on them contain unreadable jumbles of letters. The books have to be readable in order for reader behavior around them to generate interesting metadata. My point was that on the Web, the major battles, innovations, stealth land-grabs and disruptions are taking place not around the meaning of 'readable' as I've used it in my previous sentence, but on how metadata is generated around whatever is deemed readable, who owns that metadata and what they're able to do with it.
bowerbird on June 23, 2008 11:19 PM:
when "what the books themselves actually contain"
becomes "only of secondary importance" to the
"metadata content" _about_ those books, let me know.
because the cart will then be
officially in front of the horse.
Lisa L. Spangenberg on June 24, 2008 1:56 AM:
Sure metadata is content; your content may even be my metadata, and the other way around. We process linguistic metadata all the time, both spoken and seen, without even realizing that that's what we're doing. It's a variation of same sorts of things Richard Lanham tries to deal with by talking about looking AT/looking THROUGH.
And there are times, like this morning, when the metadata is the content--for instance, when I'm looking a catalog of mss. from a particular monastic site. That data tells me about the kinds of people at the institution, how many were there and of what sorts--all kinds of things. Look at Web stats, for instance. Or the grammar and syntax metadata carried by an ordinary sentence--metadata native speakers (mostly) interpret with ease.
sebastian mary on June 24, 2008 7:28 AM:
Of course metadata is content, in the sense that it can be legible, useful and very powerful. But it only becomes content in the sense that news or a YouTube video is content once it's been parsed, given some kind of explanatory legend and packaged so as to be intelligible outside the world of specialist academics or stat-hounds.
Eliding content with metadata about that content risks inviting all sorts of confusions. Bowerbird makes the point that what's in a book ought to be more important than data about who's buying that book, clickstreams through a digitized version of that book and so on. But the reality is that for today's Web companies it really isn't.
In trying to avoid collapsing the distinction between books and book-related metadata I'm aware that the distinction is not cut and dried. And I'm not suggesting that I don't care what goes in books. I'm saying that Google doesn't care what goes in books - it just cares that you do, and wants to know more about exactly how. And I'm saying further that if you're interested in the future of the book in the networked era then this is a vitally important set of issues and implications to understand.
bowerbird on June 24, 2008 5:02 PM:
the thought that grows out of a book,
and the way people interact with it,
_is_ the book, in a very real way...
to see it as something _separate_from_
the book, and worse -- as something that
is _more_important_ than the book itself --
is to miss what's important about a book,
which is that it _does_ make us think...
and yes, "metadata" can rise to that level,
on occasion, but not as a matter of course.
dan visel on June 24, 2008 6:02 PM:
re: the distinction between books & their metadata, didn't Borges get here first in "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"? The content of Pierre Menard's Don Quixote is exactly the same as the content of that of Cervantes. The metadata (who wrote it, when they wrote it) is different, and that makes an enormous difference to the reader.
(Actually Duchamp gets here before Borges, though without books: a urinal is just a urinal before the artist "took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object".)
sol gaitan on June 25, 2008 11:54 AM:
Isn't metadata constructed from real people's interactions with books?
If so, then this "measured units in a dynamic system" serve as that, a measure of people's interactions with books. Before, how was this measured, by how worn-out a book got in a library?
Metadata, as a system, communicates something, and it can be used, or generated, to serve many purposes.
A language that I don't know is nothing but empty symbols, but it is still a language. Closing the gap between expression and contents is the nature of symbols, metadata is yet another attempt at that.