Capturing and Cataloging the Digital Ephemera

In the constant battle to get the most out of my life, I’ve been mulling over how best to add catalog my reflections.

I am a reflective person. Duh. I like to talk, I like to discuss ideas and events, I like to analyze social interactions, I like to write. All of these things help me process, help me reflect and dissect and make sense of what happens to me in my life and what I think and feel about issues or events or people.

I’ve been writing on this blog for about seven years now, and I’ve journaled intermittently for around 12-13 years. Two years ago, I made the upgrade from flip phone to smart phone, which has opened up a new world of reflective possibilities.

What I’ve been trying to figure out is how best do I organize all of this digital ephemera? Let’s face it, my generation is one of digital reflection. When we think, we tweet. When we debate, it’s online. I still hand write thank you notes, but I haven’t handwritten an actual letter or journal entry in years.

Yes, people can lament the loss of the handwriting medium, but what I gain from digital expression is that the potential for organization and cataloging is nearly infinite. For example, iPhoto has allowed me to catalog nearly 15,000 pictures of the last seven years by geographical place or by human face.

And this is just one example of all the cataloging technology has allowed. What I ultimately want is a cataloging standard for all the disparate places where I record my life: my journal, my blog, my photos, things I save on the web, random little notes, to-dos, etc. I’m not tech-savvy enough to be able to actually get all these platforms to connect to each other, but having a standardized cataloging system implemented would help me keep all this digital stuff in place, help me more efficiently find the content I’m looking for right when I need it.

The most simplistic (and very likely, the most realistic) solution to this problem is tags. Tags are digital flags that can be attached to content; I can name them whatever I want and so create a hierarchy all my own.

As the amount of digital content increases, so does the ubiquity of tags. People want this stuff organized, and tags are a really easy way to do so.

However, tags are not the perfect solution, mainly because as I start to think about what tags I’d want to create a filing system, I begin to realize that what I’m really looking for is a very specific hierarchy of tags. If I write a journal article about my baby, I could tag it “Baby.” If I then journal about a friend having a baby and tag that “Baby,” I can’t actually delineate between the journal about my baby and the one about my friend’s baby, and at some point, I’ll probably want to parse those out.

One problem is that this tagging structure isn’t necessarily available for all digital platforms. But even more so, the disparity between digital platforms is going to stop me from actually creating a cataloging standard that I can fit on top of each platform in the first place.

So I almost have to categorize the various digital media first, and then try and create an organizational standard with variables; these variables can then be molded to fit any given platform I’m using.

These are all overtly conceptual terms and I want to give a real example. I keep all of my music in iTunes. I write this blog on WordPress, and I keep my journal in Day One. Three separate digital platforms, hosting different kinds of content, with their own individual organization built in to each system.

With iTunes, you’ve got a platform where organization is built in. Files are meant to be organized by artist, album, song, with lots of extra fields for composer, year, genre, comments, etc.

WordPress has a hierarchy of categories and tags. I keep my categories fairly broad (politics, music, movies, life, blogging, etc.) and my tags are whatever the heck I want them to be. Some are actual informational tags, some are just joke references for people who know more pop culture than is good for them.

And then Day One has a cut-and-dry tagging system. No hierarchy, just tags.

So rather than trying to create a system that will fit perfectly on top of all three of these platforms, I want to create a structure that is fluid, with variables of organization that might not interchange perfectly, but logically make sense in the platform I’m using, and that are at least analogous to another system.

And for this, I keep coming back to tags. Tags are my variable. They will bend to fit what I need them to fit. For my previous example, they are three different platforms that hold different kinds of content, but with tags, I have a tool that can help me organize the content in all three.

If you have no interest in organizing digital content, my thanks and appreciation goes out to you for reading this far. But less important than how I actually do it is why I care about it so much. For better or for worse, my American generation is full of kids whose lives have been lived in a digital environment. We interpret the world very differently than our parents (like every generation in the last 150 years has) and so much of our identity is tied up in a digital space.

And that’s why all this organization matters to me. I am one of those kids with a digital identity. When I reflect on various events in my life or process through difficult life issues, I don’t want to lose those reflections or processed thoughts. I want to keep them so I can return to them. One of the best parts of having written for as long as I have is randomly going back through old journal articles. Reading my words and remembering the thoughts attached to those memories. Who doesn’t love going through old photos and being immediately rushed back to the thrill of when that boy held your hand, or how much fun that concert was with your best friends? Insert whatever cheesy memory you might have and it works.

I’ve recently taken on a pretty extensive project, much like the home video project my wife and I worked on a few years back. I’ve begun scanning all the old photos from the albums that my parents have at their house. So far, I’ve only done three complete photo albums and I already have nearly 500 pictures done. I’ll move on next to old disposable camera photos that Colls and I took in high school (ah, the early 2000s), and eventually I’d like to move on to Colleen’s family photos.

What’s awesome about this is that I’m stumbling over photos I remember from growing up, but even cooler, I’m finding old photos of my parents that I don’t remember ever seeing, and that offer a peek into a world and time in which I didn’t exist yet.

Scan 5

Seeing photos of my parents when they were the age I am now is fascinating. It’s crazy to look at a picture of the two of them with a brand new baby and think that they most likely were feeling the same confusion, frustration, and white-hot joy being new parents that I’m beginning to feel now.

Once I’m done with this photo project and have all this new content tagged in my organizational system, it’ll take only a few keystrokes to find all the pictures I have of my parents with any of their kids, or my own baby, or me and my wife when we were 16 years old.

Ultimately, I believe our lives can be fuller if we don’t forget where we’ve come from, what we used to be. It helps me appreciate things more. When I look back at the photos of my wife and me when we were tiny little teenagers, I am transported back to what it felt like to have an unstoppable crush on a girl. And that’s such an important memory for me to keep, because obviously, after more than 10 years together, that’s not how Colleen and I feel for each other anymore. Our relationship and love has matured into something completely different than that high school crush and we’ve seen a lot more difficulty and goodness in life than I could ever have imagined. I don’t want to feel like I did when I was 18, I want to feel like I do when I’m 28, but with the knowledge of our past firmly intact.

That’s what organized reflection provides.

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