One of my pet peeves is the incorrect use of technical terminology in public. Sometimes I feel like I’m some sort of linguistic elitist when I point out that not everything interesting done in JavaScript is "AJAX." But unlike those who obstinately repeat “ain’t ain’t a word,” technically meaningless terminology actually affects people’s ability to communicate.

Case in point:

>> If I have a form element like
>> <input type="text" name="mydata">
>> Is there a way to select it in a similar manner to getElemntById()?
> var nameArray = document.getElementsByTagName('mydata');

I can' seem to get getElementsByTagName working. I am not sure what I am doing wrong.

This confused individual thought “TagName” referred to the “name” attribute. Why would anyone think the “name” attribute was a tag? Because hundreds of people go around referring to attributes and tags. Stop it. You’re confusing people. If you don’t know what a technical term means, don’t use it. Use plain English instead.


Sam Ruby writes My theory is that most of the interesting metadata is in the content. Interestingly, he put <b> tags around the word "in," apparently to emphasize it. There are, as Sam no doubt knows, <em> tags for that specific purpose. But the meaning is clearly not lost without those tags. And this is a good illustration of what I think follows from Sam's theory.

There is no firm difference between metadata and content. Both are meaningless, and are only given meaning by the reader. We tend to give more specific meaning to metadata, because metadata tends to be read mostly by computers, and computers are intolerant of ambiguity. But as we use metadata more and more, we increasingly have multiple computers reading the same metadata and deriving different meaning from it. For example, see how Kevin Marks and Stowe Boyd interpret the meaning of rel="tag" metadata. They aren't discussing differences in how humans should and do read these tags; they're discussing ambiguity in how computers read metadata. With such ambiguity, suddenly metadata doesn't look so different from what we generally consider content.

I think this phenomenon extends beyond markup language to natural language. Jessica is studying high vs. low context communication, which I had previously studied when I was learning Japanese. She asked me if Japanese is high or low context. There was a time when I knew the answer immediately. Japanese is generally considered a high-context culture. But it's been so long since I had learned this that I found I had to think about it, probably for the first time. And I found I wasn't at all sure about the answer.

There is certainly a lot of communication in Japan that foreigners would not catch from words alone, but how much of this is due to the fact that there is more meaning in words than most foreigners realize? A Marin College business communication web page on the subject includes a quote from "a Japanese manager": We are a homogeneous people and don't have to speak as much as you do here. When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one. This would seem to indicate that Japanese text holds more meaning than English text. If Japanese is both high-context and the text itself means more, is everything much more meaningful in Japan? Perhaps, but it seems to me that "high-context" is very relative to what the text itself means.

I haven't thought this all through very far yet, but it's already clear to me that I need to learn more about out how meaning works. If meaning is anything approaching zero-sum economy, then all of this metadata we are adding is taking meaning away from the words. I think there's a real risk that while we are making things easier for computers to read, we are in some ways making them more difficult for people to read. At what point do the tags become the content? Some would say we're already past that point (Links are part of language). If so, is this desirable or should we maybe start reconsidering the value of metadata everywhere? Food for thought.

Update: coincidentally, the next day on Metafilter is a link to Semiotics for Beginners. Semiotics appears to be exactly the topic I was stumbling into. Hopefully I'll have some more firm thoughts on the subject after reading it.