Jewish 2.

0
The Difficult Road to Internet Innovation
Daniel Septimus

When it comes to technological innovation, Jewish organizations can’t seem to win. They are criticized for their lack of adaptability and their sluggish integration of new media strategies and tools. Yet when a Jewish organization builds a blog or starts a Twitter stream, they are often criticized for a lack of direction, for embracing technology for its own sake because it seems hip or novel. The digital native versus digital immigrant divide is often cited as a reason why the Jewish community is late to adopt technology. Most Jewish organizations— particularly the largest and most influential ones—are run by baby boomers, immigrants in “Internet Land.” Yet this may be too convenient an answer. The president and CEO of the American Red Cross, Gail McGovern, is 58, and her age did not stop her organization from raising unprecedented dollars via text messaging in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. One might argue that Jewish communal leaders are just more conservative and traditionally minded. But perhaps this is appropriate given that we are a small community with many needs. Research & Development (R&D) could be a luxury when there are poor people to feed, Israeli institutions to support, and day school tuitions to subsidize. Of course, some Jewish organizations and start-ups have tried to leverage internet innovation to foster Jewish education and identity. It is worth reflecting on some of these products—on their successes and challenges—to discover if there are lessons for us as a community going forward. WEB 2.0 The term “Web 2.0” is nearly six years old, coined at a 2004 conference convened by O’Reilly Media. The conference was meant to consider the state of the internet after the burst of the tech bubble, but the second stage of internet history conjured up by “2.0” did not only refer to the economic climate. New models for internet success were emerging. As Tim O’Reilly wrote in a 2005 article, “The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence” (see www.oreilly.com). In other words, Web 2.0 eschews the top-down approach of expert curators and relies on the input (and passion) of amateurs. The classic Web 1.0 versus Web 2.0 dichotomy is, of course, Brittanica Online versus Wikipedia. By leveraging the knowledge of tens of millions of laypeople, Wikipedia has created an
Daniel Septimus is CEO and Editor-in-Chief of MyJewishLearning.com and has been involved with the website since its launch in 2002. He recently helped launch MyJewishLearning’s new parenting website, Kveller.com.

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encyclopedia with exponentially more content than Brittanica, while also being infinitely more dynamic, reflecting up-to-the-minute changes. Some studies have indicated that, despite its amateur origins, Wikipedia is rather close to Brittanica and the like in terms of veracity or quality, but to some extent this is irrelevant. Wikipedia is one of the top-ten most visited websites. High quality or not, it is the world’s primary source of mass information. Amazingly, while Wikipedia might be the first website people think of when they consider the notion of “collective intelligence,” it may not even be the most important one. Google is synonymous with technological dominance, and its revolutionary search engine algorithm is also made possible by collective intelligence. Google’s PageRank system analyzes the number of links to a website from other websites and counts those links as a vote for its usefulness and quality. Thus, Google leverages the hyperlinking that people do across the web to help produce a better functioning and more useful search engine. In addition to Wikipedia-type user-generated content, the other major 2.0 innovation is social media, particularly social networking programs like Facebook and MySpace and communication devices like Twitter and Foursquare. The social nature of the web and the fact that everything (including what you ate for dinner) is potential web content are the logical conclusions of collective intelligence. In a sense, the internet is actually the arena for collective cognition, whether it is intelligent or not. THE JEWISH SPACE Numerous Jewish Web 2.0 projects have emerged in the last few years. Some have been initiated by relatively large, establishment not-for-profits like BBYO and American Jewish World Service, and some are more grassroots efforts. To chart out the space, I briefly note here a few projects and then examine their contexts. The Open Source Haggadah: Launched in 2002, this represents, perhaps, the earliest entry into the field. According to its website (www.opensourcehaggadah. com), “the Open Source Haggadah allows users to assemble a personalized haggadah from texts and images that come from a diverse and inclusive array of Jewish sources, including—most importantly—user generated content.” This site was developed by Daniel Sieradski and James Moore, but is no longer being actively maintained. A similar project, Haggadot.com, is currently in development. b-linked: Launched in 2005 by BBYO to be an online community and social networking platform for Jewish teens Jewtube: A Jewish video-sharing website launched in 2006 Koolanoo: A for-profit Jewish social network launched in 2006. “Users get profile space in which they can upload photos, talk about their likes and life stories, and make themselves known. There’s a marketplace and a dating section. You’ve got video chat, IM and on site messaging. There are also blogs and event listings. Users can partake in forums and contribute to the message boards” (see www. killerstartups.com).
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The internet is actually the arena for collective cognition, whether it is intelligent or not.

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JsoN: Launched in early 2007 by the Jewish Coalition for Service to be an online community and social networking platform for alumni of Jewish service learning programs On1Foot: Launched by American Jewish World Service in 2009, “On1Foot is an online database of Jewish social justice texts designed to support and promote the teaching of social justice in the Jewish community. This educational resource allows users to search and browse hundreds of biblical, rabbinic and contemporary Jewish texts about social justice, upload new texts and create custom source sheets using the texts and suggested discussion questions” (see www.on1foot. org/about). The Tagged Tanakh: Launched by the Jewish Publication Society in 2010, “Tagged Tanakh is a collaborative platform that joins vetted content and usergenerated commentary around the Jewish Bible. The words of the Torah create the foundation of this dynamic database. These words can be cross-referenced, annotated, and connected-tagged-to other forms of media, including videos, maps or games” (see www.taggedtanakh.org). Build a Prayer: Launched in BETA by BBYO in 2010, “Build a Prayer provides an online community space where…you can create and customize a Shabbat service in a fun and interactive way that is relevant to you and your community; and then share that service with your community” (see www.buildaprayer.org). THE SOCIAL NETWORKS Impressively, for an 85-year-old organization, BBYO has been the most aggressive player in the Jewish Web 2.0 field. Most Jewish Web 2.0 projects lag behind their secular equivalents, but the launch of b-linked presaged the coming prominence of social networking. In addition to standard social networking features, b-linked has a complex events registration and promotion system, which processes more than $8,000,000 annually in event fees and donations. Yet the social networking part of b-linked ended up with a major competitor it did not expect: Facebook. When b-linked was launched in 2005, Facebook membership was limited to college students. Thus, b-linked really was responding to a gap in the market, as there was no social networking site that dominated the teen market. But less than a year later, Facebook opened itself up to anyone older than 13. Members were able to set up Fan and Group pages to communicate with each other, and they did. A special social networking platform for teens became less necessary, because they could now use Facebook (which had the advantage of hosting their non-Jewish friends as well). Of course, b-linked was not the only social network blindsided by Facebook’s expansion. For-profit behemoths like Friendster and MySpace suffered too. But there is a difference between the use of philanthropic funds and business investments. While BBYO needs to be respected for its incredible ability to change and be forward thinking, the b-linked/Facebook case study raises questions about when Jewish not-for-profits should be investing heavily in technology infrastructure.

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Nor was b-linked the only exclusively Jewish social network that suffered from Facebook’s emergence as the leader in the field. In early 2007, the Jewish Coalition for Service launched JSoN, a social networking site for alumni of Jewish service learning programs. According to Daniel Sieradski, who reviewed JSoN on the blog Jewschool, the site was built by the same company that built b-linked. The project was reported to have cost several hundred thousands of dollars and never quite got off the ground, suffering from usability issues and, more importantly, the existence of Facebook. When the Jewish Coalition for Service morphed into the new organization, Repair the World, JSoN was shut down. But seeing the potential of Jewish social networking was not limited to the not-for-profit realm. A third Jewish social networking website, Koolanoo, was launched in 2006 and was later backed by $3 million in venture capital funding. Koolanoo tried to appeal to Jewish singles as a sort of alternate Jdate; it was launched with a risqué (and slightly ridiculous) marketing video that featured a woman losing her bikini top, only to be shielded by a hairy-chested suitor with a Magen David necklace. In June 2009, on the JPS Interactive blog, Sarah Simkin ruminated on the failure of Koolanoo and, in many ways, all Jewish social networks: As late as February 26th, 2007 some thought that the site stood a chance, but shortly thereafter it was dead in the water. Most likely due to a little website called Facebook. So why was the concept of a Jewish social network so unsuccessful? Was it a crass branding strategy, or were potential Jewish users turned off self-segregation and neo-shtetl vibe of the whole endeavor? Is the concept of a Jewish FUBU (For Us By Us) irrelevant to a generation of Jews who throng to social networks instead of shuls? Is there a need for walled gardens of Jewish niches in the overlapping long tail of the Internet? What does the failure of Koolanoo tell us about our assumptions of Jews wanting to interact only with other Jews? Unless you’re Orthodox, does this assumption carry weight with the Jewish populations targeted by Koolanoo? (http://jpsinteractive.org/blog/sarah-simkin). The questions in the last paragraph, which focus on whether contemporary Jews want to socialize in exclusively Jewish spaces—even online—may also explain the minimal success of Jewish video-sharing sites like Jewtube. Most Jews today have many interests beyond their Jewish lives and have multifaceted identities, only one of which is their Jewish one. A video-sharing space like YouTube gives them everything, the Jewish and not, in one website. They can explore videos related to all their interests, while at the same time avoiding the parochialism of a for-Jews-only space. As the popularity of Wikipedia exploded, we at MyJewishLearning.com were constantly being advised to become the Jewish Wikipedia. Our response: Wikipedia is the Jewish Wikipedia, hosting thousands of articles on Jewish history, ritual, and culture. Wikipedia certainly forced us to ponder our mission and product, but not by adopting the method of a mega-site that we could hardly compete with.
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The Jewish crowdsourcing sites … try not only to increase knowledge but also to revolutionize Judaism, subverting traditional hierarchies and empowering laypeople to take ownership over their Jewish lives.

THE CROWDSOURCING SITES But Wikipedia is not only an experiment in efficiency. It is an experiment in democracy. It is an amazingly useful resource that is the result of tens of millions of people working together to produce something great. That has pragmatic implications, but it has moral ones too. Social experiments like Wikipedia make it seem that the internet—like the printing press before it—is an important step in human evolution and progress, not merely an easy way to find trivial data. So it is with the Jewish crowdsourcing sites that, in theory, try not only to increase knowledge but also to revolutionize Judaism, subverting traditional hierachies and empowering laypeople to take ownership over their Jewish lives. Such is the goal of sites like Open Source Hagaddah, Tagged Tanakh, On1Foot, and Build a Prayer. Open Source Hagaddah and Build a Prayer aim to take control of the liturgy from the canonized books produced by rabbinical elites and put it into the hands of the laypeople who use them. The technology is meant to help users create ritual services that are personalized and, thus, more meaningful. Users will feel more invested in the rituals because they will have ownership over them and the rituals will reflect their values and interests more precisely. Tagged Tanakh aims to produce something similar for the Bible. Users can tag biblical verses and passages with traditional, contemporary, and personal commentaries, thus creating a Bible that is interpreted and embellished using the collective wisdom and creativity of the community at large. Ideally, it will yield a dynamic text that reflects the expansive voices of the entire community, while empowering the laity and subverting the need for the hierarchical canonization process that normally accompanies the publication of books of commentary. On1Foot is slightly more practically minded. It allows users to upload texts related to social justice and tag them according to theme (hunger, education, human rights, etc.). It makes it easier for educators to find relevant texts and then allows them to create custom source sheets for their classes. Still, despite its more pragmatic aim, it too facilitates the ground-up creation of canon and interpretation. The success of all of these crowdsourcing projects is contingent on the same thing: the existence of a crowd. For Build a Prayer and Open Source Haggadah to be more compelling than your average siddur, it will need to have an array of texts uploaded by users. For Tagged Tanakh to truly be a communal commentary on the Bible, people will have to comment. And here is the single most important question about Jewish Web 2.0 projects: Are there enough interested, engaged, and educated Jews out there to achieve critical mass for these projects? Does the crowd needed for Jewish crowdsourcing projects actually exist? For projects like Build a Prayer and Tagged Tanakh the concern is even more pronounced, as they primarily appeal to less traditional elements of the Jewish community—those who are interested in creative liturgy and interpretation but who tend to lag behind the traditional communities in their Jewish education and engagement. Indeed, the verdict is still out. While none of these sites could be considered a failure just yet, we have certainly yet to see a major breakthrough. The effort and experimentation are exciting and laudable, but they come at a cost. Major technology projects are not cheap. In informal conversations with some of the leaders of these projects, it seems the costs for each are anywhere

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between $40,000 and $300,000, possibly more. And that is just for the initial build, not the continuing upkeep. Now, in the grand scheme of things we may decide that the Jewish community should, indeed, spend millions of dollars on technological R&D, but we should always be making sure that our R&D is given the best chance to succeed. And while some promising and exciting Jewish Web 2.0 projects have emerged in the last few years, none could be considered a resounding success just yet. WEB 3.0 The speed of internet technology offers another obstacle for the Jewish community. By the time the Jewish community succeeds in integrating contemporary technologies, those technologies will likely no longer be contemporary. The future is already upon us. The rise of mobile devices and applications may well prove to be the focus of tomorrow’s internet. Already, experts are predicting the demise of browser-based internet functions (see http://sachin.posterous. com/the-web-sucks). In this new Web 3.0 world, the Jewish community will struggle with the same questions it did in regard to Web 1.0 and 2.0. Can we afford to keep up? Can we afford not to?

While some promising and exciting Jewish Web 2.0 projects have emerged in the last few years, none could be considered a resounding success just yet.

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