Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rise of the Meta-

As the internet started proliferating, a number of sites developed to try to make sense of the chaos.  Yahoo gained pre-eminence by warehousing links to all sorts of sites, and starting to group them together.  Webcrawler and other early search engines allowed you to go beyond browsing links and start finding specific content.  Google introduced advanced algorithms to refine those search results and help you find what you wanted faster and more precisely.  None of these technologies actually created content, they merely provided tools to help the average user to make sense and navigate the vast information already available.

This rise of the meta-, that is, not providing the direct content but cataloging it, reorganizing it, and synthesizing it, has bled over into many other facets of society.  And it has real consequences. Take media for example.  With the proliferation of share-able news via twitter, facebook, and other platforms, people are far less interested in the original source of the content, and are likely instead to find the content through an intermediary, either a friend or account they follow, or a news aggregator like Google News.  Sites like the Huffington Post, which creates only a fraction of the content it lists, have found popularity in instead curating the content that is most visible. Because each news site has its own webpage, facebook, and twitter accounts, the information is easily accessible, but the channel is increasingly saturated.  As such, the power has moved away from those who actually create the content to those who aggregate it and curate it, in other words, those functioning at the meta level.

In the Jewish organizational world, we seem to be seeing this trend as well.  As organizations like Moishe House proliferate, and as philanthropists and communities continue to put more resources behind young adult engagement, the amount of content (in this case, programming or events), has generally risen.  Many communities now have professionals working exclusively on engaging young adults, fully outside of a development context.  That is to say that communities are starting to try to connect to young adults without the immediate goal of asking them for money.  In major markets like Chicago, where the organizational landscape is quite robust, there are often several nights a week in which more than one young adult group is hosting something.  But even in Chicago, there are large numbers of young adults, even those who express interest in community involvement, who know little about the actual events and opportunities taking place.  This discovery gap creates a market opportunity for an organization to play the meta role, amassing the information and categorizing and curating it in a useful and share-able manner.

At a time with more and more consultants, and fewer and fewer people actually doing the work, those in the meta role are crucial for the discovery process, but also risk diverting resources from the work that must actually be done on the ground.

The danger in playing in the meta field is relatively simple:  If you rely totally on others to create the information you re-purpose, you have to be sure that there is sufficient high quality content to pull from.  As more Jewish organizations seek to play at the meta level, it is crucial that the landscape not become top heavy.  In other words, if we imagine the relationship between content (or program) providers and aggregators to be such that there must be many providers to one aggregator, we should be wary that there aren't more aggregators to the detriment of fewer providers.

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