File Structures, Generational Knowledge Gap, and the Media Library

Helen Hou-Sandi shared an interesting article on Twitter that looks at the generational knowledge gap between students who grew up using Google Drive versus professors who use directory structures for storing and accessing files. Apparently, saving files to folders and understanding how a directory structure works is not a skill that much of the younger generation has.

One of the biggest differences between the two generations is the mental model. While professors are used to storing things in directories and sub-directories, the younger generation stores files into one large bucket and searches for them when needed. Something that struck a chord with me is how I use directory structures without realizing it, most notably the Steam app.

And though directory structures exist on every computer (as well as in environments like Google Drive), today’s iterations of macOS and Windows do an excellent job of hiding them. (Your Steam games all live in a folder called “steamapps” — when was the last time you clicked on that?) Today’s virtual world is largely a searchable one; people in many modern professions have little need to interact with nested hierarchies.”

Monica Chin

In thinking about how I save and access files, I generally have a few folders that items go into on Windows but on my Macbook Pro, it comes down to two directories, Documents and Downloads. In the past, I’ve created a folder on the desktop where all sorts of files and icons are stored simply for the sake of making the desktop appear cleaner. I’ve largely become one of those people who saves everything into a bucket or two and heavily relies on an operating system’s or app’s search function to find what I’m looking for.

Hou-Sandi applies a WordPress spin to the article, by asking developers to really think about how things are approached in the WordPress UI.

I think it would be really good for WordPress developers to really read and absorb this piece and think about how things are currently approached in the UI and explaining what WordPress is and how we can actually be effective in a mental model of apps and no file system.

Helen Hou-Sandi

An example she highlights is the WordPress Media Library. For as long as I can remember and to this day, one of the requests I’ve heard most often to improve the media library is to add folders that would essentially provide a directory structure. How funny it is to think that after going so many years without folders, that the generational gap of knowledge would perhaps put the media library in a better position to be better suited for the future.

Current Media Library Cataloguing Fields

When an image is uploaded to the media library, users have the ability to add alternative text, title, caption, and description. Obviously, these fields are not enough. If the mental model is now to put everything into a bucket, then how does WordPress make it so that those files can be retrieved simply by searching for them when they’re needed? Is the WordPress search up to snuff to handle that?

I imagine the search can only be as good as how well the items are cataloged with metadata. On my iPhone, I can’t find anything in an album of 1,000 images because I’m never adding descriptive metadata to them. I generally develop muscle memory when scrolling down the page as to where they’re located. Certainly not an ideal experience for something like the media library.

So the big question asked by Hou-Sandi is, “Staying stuck on the idea of adding folders won’t work – the UI needs to flex to fit different ways of thinking, and above all else, it needs plain text search/filtering, but how do we accomplish that without third-party or hosted services?”

I don’t have the faintest idea but I did enjoy the article she linked too and it was fun to realize how I’ve been storing and accessing files the last few years. Windows search bar is my best friend forever.

3 thoughts on “File Structures, Generational Knowledge Gap, and the Media Library”

  1. The idea of the folder structure never quite made sense to me. If you have ever spent time digging around the year date folder structure then i can only imagine the trouble that a free form structure would bring and what updating that structure would require in terms of updating existing file paths. It seems like WordPress already has a solution for this, taxonomies, it’s just a shame it’s not easily supported in the editor or through filtering in the media library.

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