In recent weeks, everyone that I have spoken with claims to suffer from some form of information overload related to digital media. As content creation has become cheap and simple for the masses, and the cost of building online businesses has dropped, the volume of online content, activity and communication has grown enormously. According to a recent Deloitte & Touche study, nearly half of all U.S. media consumers are now creating content for others to see. People are not only explicitly creating content for consumption, but they are also increasingly broadcasting their online and offline activity via services like Facebook and Twitter. All of this information has led to the development of “meta layer” applications and services to help consumers filter and organize information so that they can find and consume what is most relevant and timely for them.
Examples of these meta layers can be found in many areas. Digg and Google News are meta layers for news. Friendfeed and Socialthing are meta layers for social networks. Bloglines and Google Reader are meta layers for blogs. Mint and Wesabe are meta layers for personal finance. (Even ad networks have meta layers, such as Rubicon Project and Pubmatic.) Unfortunately, the challenge for online consumers remains. Seemingly, the number of meta layers will soon present the same problem as individual sources of information do currently. Further, these meta layers take varying approaches to filtering and organizing information for the consumer. Fine-tuned algorithms, wisdom of the crowds, trusted networks, expert curation, explicit consumer actions and implicitly derived interests are all techniques utilized by meta layers.
Ultimately, consumers only care about the value that they get from using a meta layer and not the approach taken to providing that value. Consumers will want many different filters for content but will want to control when and how content is filtered and presented. Networks effects will be the true differentiator that separates the winners in the meta layer wars from the losers. If a person extracts greater value whenever another person uses the same meta layer, both the value proposition and the adoption of the layer will grow exponentially. Depending on the meta layer application, scale in the user base can provide consumers with higher quality benchmark data, greater market liquidity, more relevant results or unexpected personal connections. I haven’t come across a meta layer that really provides differentiated value via network effects. Until I do, and despite the need for them, I’m skeptical that any single meta layer application or service will reach the critical mass needed to provide outsized venture returns.