My recent post on metadata and Indian food has gotten more traffic than most posts on this blog, and it has also received more comments and discussion as well. One comment in particular, from Jessica Jolly, really resonated with me:
Love the analogy. My personal favorite analogy regards old family photos. If no one takes the time to write on the back of the photo the who/what/where/when/why (i.e. the metadata), that photo will get thrown away.
Not everyone agreed that this was a great analogy. Khürt Williams in particular called out the inherent value of some data independent of any metadata to give it context.
No one throws away old family photos because they lack who/what/where/when/why. In fact, I would argue that with family photos the metadata lives in the minds of the people in the photograph or some family member you haven’t yet spoken to.
Somethings have value way beyond their metadata.
These comments got me thinking, and made me ask myself: when does memory die?
I’ve seen many variations on this quote, but I don’t know who said it first:
You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.
This may be a Russian proverb or it may be a quote from Westworld, but I believe the principle applies as much to business data as it does to family photos, despite the obvious differences between the two.
Looking at the family photos context first I can clearly recall times in my life, in those dark days following a funeral or a divorce, when family photos were discarded and the lack of metadata was a contributing factor. The photos of close relatives were kept, but those of more distant relatives were at risk.
When you’re asking “should I keep this photo?” and the next question is “who are these people?” the answer to the second question is going to influence the answer to the first.
As a specific example, I’d like to share a photo that hangs above the one-handed swords in my hallway.
This photo was in the home of my wife’s grandmother, who passed away almost 20 years ago. We found it when we were cleaning out her house after her funeral; it was in the attic, not on display, and no one knew who this young man might be. A few relatives thought that he was a cousin or second cousin of my wife’s late grandmother who went to the great war and never returned – but no one was certain. There was writing on the paper backing the frame, but it was faded and smudged by the years, and by the time we discovered the photo the words were illegible.
By the time we discovered the data, the metadata was no longer usable, and any subject matter expert who could have shared the deeper context of the data had long since moved on.
And once you phrase it like that, it starts to sound familiar again.
In far too many business contexts the metadata lives only in the minds of the people who create and work with the data. It’s tribal knowledge – just like unlabeled family photographs. But as people move on to new jobs and the business changes over time, that tribal knowledge is lost. Even though the data may still be the same, and may still be valuable, when the people move on the tribal knowledge leaves with them. At this point it will either be organically rediscovered and recreated, or the data will stagnate because no one remembers anymore why it was important. Or, as is the case with the photo above, the data may be used and applied to a different purpose.
Tribal knowledge is a lousy metadata solution, no matter the context. Because tribal knowledge is inherently transitory and lossy, we should strive to capture metadata in a more systematic way, and to keep the metadata as close to the data as possible.
Because eventually memory will die. And some things are too important to forget.
 My favorite variation may be from Manowar, who remind us that only courage and heroism linger after death… but it would be a stretch even for me to incorporate this into the body of the post. This is why we have footnotes.
 I call out the fact that these are the one-handed swords because the two-handed swords hang in a different hallway, and there isn’t enough room for a photo above them.