When Context Takes Over

Magazine readers still have a hell of a time finding out about the stuff they see inside, don’t they?

First, they write it down. Then they get to a web connection (computer or iPhone if they’re lucky). Then they Google it– and that’s just to get started. The percentage that lose interest along the way is huge. I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be to the people featured inside.

Obviously, life just doesn’t include the metadata that the web does. If a friend brings over a bottle of wine for supper, we don’t know how it’s rated, or how much it cost. We know nothing.

I’ve spent so much time on the web now that I’m starting to feel this emptiness, almost a lack of context, in some places where metadata is absent. If I see something I find interesting, I’d like to catalogue it. If I’m interested in learning more about something I read, I’d like to read its Wikipedia article. Am I alone?

So much will change when this is possible. Our ability to grok complex subjects will increase, as will our capacity to detect bullshit or misinformation. Context gives rise to better and deeper communication (like the use of the word ‘grok,’ above).

We can see the rise of a lot of this just by the way we use Google Maps to direct us where we’re going. A lot of the conventions can go away if you have everything at your fingertips– we don’t need to ask for directions, for example. It goes without saying that we still need to doubt what the metadata is telling us, but if we have that solved, what then?

I think a willing suspension of context acquisition, like the suspension of disbelief when we see a movie, will arise. We’ll start using it more often to return our sense of wonder, to bring us back to the place from before we knew everything. And some context, such as private experience, cannot be absorbed into metadata.

Earlier this week I was at Morningside Estates, a bed and breakfast in the woods outside Victoria that’s absolutely gorgeous. I stayed for two days, didn’t login with foursquare, or upload many pictures. The experience was mine. It was more valuable because of that.

But here lies a dilemma. If I liked the experience, shouldn’t I want to share? Am I selfish for not, say, liveblogging it? Am I just reasonable? Where does the metadata begin, and where does the experience end?

Most importantly, how can I justify being private if I would like metadata to be available? Am I a hypocrite?





13 responses to “When Context Takes Over”

  1. Mark Dykeman Avatar

    Julien, this post reminds me of some of the topics that you guys discussed during the Media Hacks episode that you recorded live in NYC at the Roger Smith Hotel around the time of the Web 2.0 conference.

    On one hand, you are being a bit hypocritical in wanting to keep an experience private while yearning for ubiquitous metadata. On the other hand, how does personal taste translate into metadata? The things about Morningside Estates that you liked might not appeal to other people. Metadata can basically provide nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to describe a thing, but there are limits, aren’t there, to capturing taste?

    The other thing to consider is that even though you decided not to document the experience, the next visitor might.

  2. Jana Avatar

    Our desire from metadata doesn’t allow us the room to learn from experience. It isn’t always the mental act of reading more and intellectually understanding, but rather the physical act of embodying the knowledge (this theory is often found in martial arts).

    I think some experiences take longer to process and during that time we need them to be ‘private’, so that we can assimilate and understand them.

  3. Whitney Avatar

    I find I’m making this distinction more and more- between being in the moment, having private experiences and discussing them later, if I choose, when I’ve had time to reflect, versus the more play-by-play sharing that happens at conferences.

    More data is sometimes just more data and doesn’t always add to the experience. Should we always care what other people think? Probably only in brand new places, where we don’t have time to explore and find the best stuff on our own. The fun is in the exploring, not just in the regurgitating someone else’s script of their version of a good time. The information and recommendations from others helps form a filter, or conversely, generate interest where they may have been none before.

    I do have concerns that people are going to be so used to being fed information about places, about other people’s experiences, that the element of taking a chance and exploring uncharted territories will diminish. People are naturally risk adverse, so going the well trod path, like Mcdonald’s over a local dive, becomes like a security blanket. Why go to the great local place, when Walmart is predictable? That’s an inherent danger, in some ways, of the metadata- that we stop exploring in favor of the previously trod path.

  4. John McLachlan Avatar

    To keep the context “west coast” (you were on Vancouver Island), I pondered what a different experience Captain George Vancouver would have had when he explored the same coast in the late 1700s if he’d been tweeting his experience to his network of friends and family back home and uploading YouTube videos and images of places like Burrard Inlet that would later become Vancouver’s harbour.

    Of course back then, everything he and his crew sailed into was new to him.

    We are losing that sense of adventure in our connected world. Sometimes I think we spend so much time documenting ourselves that we radically change our experience and not always for the better.

    The Olympics happen in Vancouver in just a few weeks. I bet we will see a huge number of the athletes as they march in to the opening ceremonies holding cameras photographing and videoing their experience. I think we lose something when we do this. We are trying to capture the moment and freeze it so we can keep it but in so doing we miss the actual, more deep experience of being present.

    For me, it’s a push – pull feeling with all of this. I’m inconsistent. Sometimes, I want to capture it all and add the meta-data and then “not so much.” It’s a dilemma.

  5. Serge Lachapelle Avatar

    What about the process of discovery then? Half of the fun of your bed and breakfast experience was probably the discovery. Because you did not read about it, you were able to approach it with an opened mind…

    Just take hotels and the reviews you read on the net. They are usually all over the place…I take you back to your post about opinions….This hotel meta data is just that, opinions, useless opinions most of the time.

    I am glad when I find good info on the net, but I am also happy to be able to discover stuff without the collective influence…

  6. Stephen Fowler Avatar
    Stephen Fowler

    ‘If a friend brings over a bottle of wine for supper, we don’t know how it’s rated, or how much it cost. We know nothing.’

    It seems to me the opposite is true. You know everything you need to know.
    You know that your friend brought it.
    You know what you’re having for supper.
    You know if it’s got a cork or a screw top.
    And once you taste it, you’ll know if you like it.

    Will knowing how it’s rated, how much it cost, who made it, where the grapes came from, what time they were picked, the name of the Itallian woman who stomped on them–will knowing any of that add to your enjoyment of the evening?
    If someone at the table has that information and can impart it in an entertaining manner, then yes.
    If you have to squirrel yourself away in a corner with your laptop to find out, then no.

    You’re right about one thing.
    Context is everything.
    But the context of your evening with your friends is not a bottle of wine.
    It’s an evening with your friends.

    When we first got a video camera, I followed my four year old around with it everywhere.
    It didn’t take me too long to realize that by looking at his life through a lens, I was missing his life.
    Metadata be damned.
    Live life as it comes.
    Talk about it later.

  7. donald Avatar

    Hello Julien et al,

    Content vs context has an ongoing preoccupation with art. There is a video from 1985 by General idea called

    ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2gVJ1IRxA0 ) which deals with the cacophony of media culture towards content and context. don’t miss ‘The death of the mauve bat’.


  8. John Mardlin Avatar

    Maybe the example was not very well chosen Julien, but I think it’s a little far out to suggest that you can begin to share your experience with me. Reading about your time at a B n’ B, is not going to give me a fraction of the experience that you had.

    In fact, I doubt that you would increase the total enjoyment of everyone that reads about your experience, by the same amount that removing yourself from the experience to share it would reduce your enjoyment.

    Essentially you`d be giving away something that people couldn`t appreciate as much as you yourself could.

    Does that make sense?

    1. Julien Avatar

      @John: So removing myself enough to document it reduces my enjoyment more than it creates value for others? I can see that. But people still do review and write about stuff that happened only to them, and it does increase the value for others (in aggregate at least). Doesn’t it?

      In general here I’m talking about smarter decision making through metadata I think… are we disagreeing that additional context helps formulate better opinions/decisions?

  9. John McLachlan Avatar

    Julien, not sure which “John” you were referring to, but as far as the value I get from more metadata that is added by others—it’s great—and does help me formulate better decisions. I’m very glad of it.

    People have been writing about stuff that only happened to them for thousands of years and we’ve benefited from it. Now, it’s in overdrive with the Internet and its tools at our disposal. Overall, I’m “for it.”

  10. Stephen Fowler Avatar
    Stephen Fowler

    Even with a shared experience I can only ever tell you how I experienced it.
    Even when the ‘experience’ is fictional and I’m writing from another/omnicient point of view that point of view is still mine.
    If that point of view is going to be worth anything to anybody, especially me, I need to experience the experience as deeply and fully as I possibly can.
    That could mean reporting on it while it’s happening.
    It might mean reflecting on the experience before reporting on it.
    It might also mean keeping the experience to myself.
    What it really all comes down to is connecting with each other through our stories.
    We are all story tellers.
    How we tell them and how we recieve them is not nearly as important as the acts of telling and listening.
    From the campfire to the blog post, it’s part of what makes us human.

  11. Dara Bella Avatar

    Think this everyones choice as the information on us increases and the access. This is about the hotel in the country. Do we need to know everthing and where a person is, I mean prisoners probably have freedom sometimes. I agree with @John too and Donalds context versus content idea is intriguing.

  12. John Mardlin Avatar

    ” are we disagreeing that additional context helps formulate better opinions/decisions?”

    No, I can’t disagree with that statement.

    It’s in the generation of the context that I think you would lose something. Documenting and experiencing for me are different, but maybe this is just me. I think some photographers feel some experiences more intensely by attempting to capture it. In the case of blogging about an experience though, you could just experience it in real time, and blog about it later.

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