There have been several major upgrades to Conversant, the software that powers this web site, including a feature Macrobyte calls Custom Fields, but I personally think of as Metadata Madness (think of those bad television ads for car dealers).
Pretty much everything on this web site is actually part of a database. Things like the text of a message, the creation date, the author, the subject, etc. are essentially fields in that database. Storing information in a database presents a lot more possibilities than static systems.
Metadata — data about data — expands that power and makes it possible to manipulate data in lots of very cool ways.
Conversant already had an excellent metadata tool called “Labels.” On this site, I used those to lumps stories into categories. This story, for example, is assigned to a label called “Web.” Other stories are assigned to lablels like “Computer Games” or “Religion.”
Custom fields let me take that to the next level. For example, after all of the writing I did on the 9/11 attack, I wanted to create a page that would feature just the stories I’d written about that attack. I suppose I could have created a new, separate label for those stories, but then that would defeat the purpose of having broad categories.
Instead I created a “keywords” text field — which is now a field that all messages on the site have — and simply assigned all the 9/11 stories with the keyword “9/11.” You can see the results in this test page.
I’ve also added a short “description” field, though haven’t yet implemented it on this site. For an example of how this can come in handy, visit http://www.animalrights.net/articles/2001/ and notice how the more recent articles have short descriptions after them. This text is also used on the front page to summarize text (though at the moment I have to copy and paste this text into weblog entries, but this feature will be integrated automatically in an upcoming update of the weblog).
At the moment I’m mostly using these free-form text fields, but custom field option also offers date fields, popup menu fields, and list/combo fields.
Using a combination of these you could really build some powerful applications. For example, there is only 1 record in the database at the moment, but I’m using the custom fields to rebuild my database of animal rights terrorism that will be fully searchable on a number of different fields.
And that’s really the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of really cool things you can do with this, and as I get more into it I’ll be posting more examples.
The important things, as far as I’m concerned, is offering yet another sophisticated way to manipulate existing data. In today’s Dave Winer talks about software like Blogger and Manila as idea processors. I love that concept, but the problem with strictly outline and chronologically based processes is that neither hierarchical outlines nor a chronological ordering make it very easy to connect related (or unrelated) ideas and see the big picture.
For example, the other day I wrote a brief snippet slamming Salon.Com for its story about 9/11 and sex. That’s still fresh in my mind. A year from now, I am not going to remember that at all, much less guess which day I wrote that on. But I will be able to see that, and all related stories, by visiting the 9/11 page or a similar page of Salon.Com-related stories.
Although other people tell me they enjoy my web sites, everything I write is largely for my own benefit and future use. Being able to easily create and edit metadata makes it extremely easy to take the varied daily writing I do and organize it in a way that has long term value beyond what I’m interested in at the moment.