As a new user who joined after lurking for about a month, I'm finding it difficult to actually participate. Is there anything a new user can do here, or is it better to participate on other sites first before joining Meta?
Meta SE is for asking and answering questions about:
- Stack Exchange
- Promotions & Advertising Support,
- feature requests, or bug reports for the core Stack Exchange engine that powers all Stack Exchange websites
Basically, issues that affect the entire network of Stack Exchange sites.
A new user like yourself might have questions that you want to ask about any of this, and in that case, you are absolutely welcome to participate. You may even be able to answer questions here, but, normally1, many questions involve some sort of expertise with the SE system and how it's run.
Either way though, you are welcome to try to contribute where you can and are comfortable doing so.
What I did, and what I'd recommend other users do as well, is start by contributing and lurking on the local Meta site(s) of the SE site(s) you frequent. There you'll get a more intimate understanding of how certain sites are run and, generally, a quieter and more forgiving environment in which to learn the ropes. For one thing, child metas don't have reputation.
1 - This last month has been highly atypical.
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle: Combine participation here and elsewhere. MSE contains a wealth of information about how SE sites, as a system, work. A good example and starting point for this is the frequently asked questions post. Also, see all the links people are dropping you in comments underneath your question ;)
Then again, without participating on any site, this knowledge is going to be mostly useless. There's a few things a 'new user' can do. Rubiksmoose pointed them out while I was writing this. If you've been lurking around the network for a long time, or on this site, you might've picked up sufficient knowledge to do those. There are also things like the winter bash contests that don't really need experience on other sites.
But if you really participate on sites, you can use the knowledge you find here, and discover for yourself where things are lacking, and participate here a bit better by sharing those experiences.
There's also a bit of 'system' that suggests it's useful to participate on sites before joining meta: You usually need a certain amount of reputation points before you can participate on site-specific meta sites. This site is one big meta site for all network sites and thus doesn't require this, but like I said it's useful to have some participation somewhere to draw conclusions from.