Meta Information

Meta Information --- ?RonGoldman 21 Feb 2002

. . . all communications between people takes place in TheContextOfOurLives. The contextual information is as much a part of our communication as the messages themselves.

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When we pick up an old letter we received years ago it may cause us to remember all that was happening back then: the person that sent it, how we felt, what our concerns were then, who we were even. Other times we are not so lucky and we are left wondering: who was it from, whatever was it to us....

How many times have you looked at an old photograph and wondered who were the people in it. At the time it was taken we may have thought we'd always remember, but we don't always do so. How wonderful then if we turn it over and see we left a note to our future self giving names to the faces and a description of the event recorded.

It's not just as an aid to our memories that we want information about our communications. When we get a phone call how convenient to have caller id let us know who is calling before we are committed to talking to them.

In our email it is a help when our email client application shows us whether we've read a message yet or if we've replied or forwarded it. Seeing who a message is from and what the subject is helps us to prioritize the order we read our mail. Being able to sort our messages by date or sender or subject aids us in organizing our correspondence and finding old messages---studies have even shown that people make more use of sort than they do of search.

Other useful "meta information" about our email is to connect a message sent in reply to a previous email. How much better would it be for us if our email clients let us easily view the thread of messages that make up a conversation---ConversationsThreading. Newsgroup readers often use the information of what postings are replies to others to allow them to display related messages in the order they were posted. That makes it much easier for us to later follow the course of the online discussion.

Keeping contextual information about a message is useful for both us and our machines. It lets us better understand and navigate our messages. It also enables our machines to act more appropriately by taking into account a larger context---be it not posting an automatic away message in reply to a message received from a mailing list, or not beeping to notify us that we have received more spam.

In some sense meta information is a way for us to inform our computers of our goals. Currently we may only be able to specify things at the level of sorting our mail with filters, but that's a start.


Include contextual details as meta information associated with messages. Allow for people to add whatever additional information is important to them. Design applications to take advantage of the meta information in order to act more appropriately.

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Some meta information is added by the recipient of a message after reading it---AnnotatedMessages and FlaggedMessages. Other information may be added automatically by an application when the message is created or processed.


Last edited December 24, 2002
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