Facebook built a platform for us to communicate. Amazon built a platform for us to buy. Hulu and Netflix built platforms for our viewing enjoyment. Google built a platform for us to find. And Apple built a platform to interface with it all.
There's a pattern among these companies that isn't immediately apparent. The backbone of these businesses is meta data.
Meta data: an explanation
Meta data is the information and details that describe a piece of digital content - a movie, a song, a news article - so that as that piece of content travels from computer to computer and across networks and the Internet, it can be identified and understood at every step of the way.
I like to describe meta data with the analogy of sending a letter to your pen pal. The real content is the letter. Dear So and So... But in order to send that letter to your friend across the country, you have to put it in an envelop and stamp and label it so that the U.S. Postal Service can deliver it to the correct destination.
In this analogy, the envelop and all of the information stamped and printed on it is the meta data.
Meta data changed the media business
This concept has revolutized the media industry, particularly for those of us who maintain vast archives of content in file cabinets full of newsprint or reels of tape.
It used to be that we used our printing presses and recording studios to create the content, and our newsstands and airwaves to deliver our news and information to you. We took great pride in being the gatekeepers of this information. It was expensive and therefore prohibitive for most. But we went to great lengths to uphold our oath to serve and inform. It was difficult to be admitted into this fraternity, and many who made it in didn't survive.
Then meta data came along and it's changing everything. It democratized the media business allowing anyone to become a creator and a publisher and have their content delivered widely and for free. For discriminating media consumers, it made the gatekeepers obsolete. Now readers could search, find and subscribe to the information they wanted to know.
That's a big deal, because for publishers it meant we had to tag and organize our content so that it could be found. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody sees it, does it make sound? If an online article is published without meta data and nobody sees it, does it make an impact?
One of the best examples I know of the power of meta data is my long-time friend, colleague, and former college roommate (and bandmate) Mark Armstrong. An accomplished reporter and journalist, Mark has reinvented himself with meta data, and he's building a business with tens of thousands of followers as a result.
Mark started @Longreads, a social media news service that allows fans of longform journalism to tag the stories they read with a Twitter hashtag, and then organize and present those stories in useful and innovative ways. Publishers like The Atlantic and The New Yorker have embraced the #Longreads hashtag as a way to reach more readers who appreciate feature-length reporting.
It's also a boon for readers. I read my #Longreads on an iPad with an app called Flipboard that presents all of the stories like a magazine spread. And the website lets visitors search and browse the Longreads archive to find stories by author, publication, or my favorite piece of meta data: time to read. That's calculated by multiplying the article word count by the average words a person can read per minute. It's a great thing to have when you you're on a 17-minute train ride and need something to read without worrying out of getting consumed and missing your stop.
At the time of this posting, @Longreads has nearly 39,000 Twitter followers. Try doing that without meta data.