9 minutes reading time (1898 words)

On curation

Wall beside Fleet Street, London

 

The late-nineties analogy of "surfing the Internet" no longer works. The explosion in digital content makes the experience less of a breezy ride on a wave of crafted material, and more of an attempt to cut through a leafy jungle with a blunt scythe. And blindfolded.

As a result, filtering has become more and more important as a way to establish quality and relevance to a personal experience of consuming digital content. The concept that underpins this, is curation – a hand-picked selection of material.

Why is curation now so important? Why has it become so interesting, so quickly, and what can be done to ensure that with curation comes quality? We asked three digital content leaders for their thoughts.


Philip John

Philip JohnWhy has curation become such a hotly-talked-about concept?

An increase in the ease of publishing brought about by the web has led to an abundance of information, and the response from consumers has been a desire to re-focus on topic niches to avoid drowning in information overload. Curation is a response to this desire, focusing on delivering those niches to the consumers who demand it. A good example of such re-focusing is the rise of hyperlocal web sites.

 

Have we moved on from the old philosophies of the web, where web managers forbid anyone to link to their sites (particularly deep linking) without asking? If so, is there now a culture of sharing which is universally understood?

Not quite. There are still many instances of protectionism, but the opposite end of the spectrum is growing in number and strength, and is generally the default position for consumers. It's only a matter of time before managers and producers fall in line.

 

Haven't we always had curation online?

Yes, although as with the rest of the web, it has evolved and continues to evolve. It's likely that the rejection of curation is no more than a fear of change.

 

Are we seeing a transfer of "power" from being told what to look at / explore, into having the ability to make these choices ourselves? Do you think that the ability to endlessly curate is something that people understand and want to do?

Absolutely. The web is inherently a democratic system. Users vote with their clicks, and will click away if they are dissatisfied. If nothing satisfies, it's a small leap to do it yourself. Many do, and will do more and more. What is clear, is that it will be seen less and less as curation, and more and more as the norm.

 

Isn't this just glorified sharing and we are, in fact, giving something that is part of the architecture of hypertext, just a new term? Are we lessening the meaning of "real" curation (eg art exhibitions)? Aren't we just throwing lots of ephemeral content around?

The Internet is fundamentally fucking with a lot of models. It's not part of the architecture of hypertext. Hypertext is just an enabling technology upon which people are re-inventing various wheels: wheels which are now easier and cheaper to make, last longer and can be shared, re-mixed and re-imagined themselves.

 

Can curation add value to content, and if so, how?

Of course. Content on it's own doesn't provide anything unless it is consumed. Curation is one way of ensuring that consumption takes place and at the same time, matching with other, complementary content to enhance that value. Curation around a topic niche is much more valuable than individual pieces of content to someone interested in it.

 

 

Steve Rosenbaum

Steve Rosenbaum

Why has curation become such a hotly-talked-about concept?

We're at just the beginning of what will be an explosion in the creation of both content and data on the web. Individuals with mobile web devices are now blogging, checking in, tweeting, re-tweeting, and generating a data-stream that confuses existing systems (search) and overwhelms individuals.

Google's Eric Schmidt has said publically that all of the information created from the beginning of time through 1978 equalled five Exabytes of data. We are now creating that every three days. So, if data creation is going to continue to grow exponentially, and current ways to find and organize information can't keep up, then people will want a new way to separate signal from noise.

Humans are the magic of the web. Curation is human-powered organisation and categorisation.

 

Have we moved on from the old philosophies of the web, where web managers forbid anyone to link to their sites (particularly deep linking) without asking? If so, is there now a culture of sharing which is universally understood?

Asking is no longer expected, or even appreciated. Sharing has become binary. Either you share, or you don't. There is an emerging culture of fairness – which understands that both aggregators/curators and content creators/distributors need to have an economic basis. But, there are folks pushing those lines –so I would say it's too early to say it's 'understood'. It's a work in progress.

 

Haven't we always had curation online?

Well, sort of. Back in the day, Yahoo was certainly a human-curated index; and then there's The Mining Company, which became About.com. I write about this history in Curation Nation. As the web became bigger, and algorithmic search got better, then the human-curated web fell away.

Institutions like the New York Times and The Week have always been a mix of created and curated, but the web itself has been powered by search. Now, we're returning to the roots of the human-powered web, but with new micro-sites and niche curated verticals.

 

Are we seeing a transfer of "power" from being told what to look at / explore, into having the ability to make these choices ourselves? Do you think that the ability to endlessly curate is something that people understand and want to do?

I don't agree with your thesis. I think that what we're seeing is a new class of web publishers called "Curators". They may make some content, or they may not - but they find, organise and create relevance around organisation. For example, someone who organises recipes around Gluten Free may find one group of readers, while someone in the east bay of San Francisco who wants to curate Gluten Free, Organic, and Local will reach another.

I do think that folks will curate for their friends: what I call the "Accidental Curator" in the book. But, that will be more like clicking the 'Like' button, re-tweeting a post: simple things, not big curation projects. That's going to go to a new class of curators whom Robert Scoble says will be the next billion-Dollar opportunity on the web. It is a big promise, so we'll have to wait and see.

 

Isn't this just glorified sharing and we are, in fact, giving something that is part of the architecture of hypertext, just a new term? Are we lessening the meaning of "real" curation (eg art exhibitions)? Aren't we just throwing lots of ephemeral content around?

Sharing is one-to-one. Curation is one-to-many. Sharing is on an item basis; curation is about creating value and meaning by gathering and contextualizing often disparate material. What a curator in a gallery does is exactly the right metaphor. They take an empty room (gallery) and a world of material (art) and create a flow, meaning, and often add context in the descriptive text that accompanies a piece of the exhibit or the overall exhibit narrative. The web needs curation – and web readers need more than bits of information.

Curators add value by including their own voice, and point of view, and content in the mix.

If you throw a lot of ephemeral content around, then you're probably not a very good curator. Poor curation will result in disappointed visitors, and few returning readers.

 

Can curation add value to content, and if so, how?

Curation is the act of adding value by creating meaning, context, and often wholly new content. Is the value of a magazine in an article, or in the flow of the whole experience? If you took a magazine apart, would the parts equal the value of the whole?

Curation provides content with new audiences, expands the 'voice' and impact of the creator, and brings new traffic - and new revenues - to existing material.

 

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Why has curation become such a hotly-talked-about concept?

Publishers and readers are appreciating that in an uncentred, distributed media world, the selection of content is as important as its quality. People are looking for things that show them what to read and what to watch. Curation may not be the best term - we get hung up on these definitions unnecessarily - but what it refers to is the active, human selection of sources for someone to read, as distinct from search.

 

Have we moved on from the old philosophies of the web, where web managers forbid anyone to link to their sites (particularly deep linking) without asking? If so, is there now a culture of sharing which is universally understood?

That is an ancient concept from a bygone age. The terms and conditions may state that you need permission to link, but the industry appears to have used the same identikit legal disclaimer for the last 15 years. There is a culture of sharing but it's far from universal. Even the Guardian, which is cited as a paragon of digital culture, does not link out to places, sites, people, things and news stories in all of its major news stories online. Much of the newspaper content you will read online in most countries, at least in my experience, is the same - it's still written for print first.

 

Haven't we always had curation online?

No, and we still don't in many cases. Publishing one story after another in an unbroken, one-way stream of text and pictures, is not curating information and opinion.

 

Are we seeing a transfer of "power" from being told what to look at / explore, into having the ability to make these choices ourselves? Do you think that the ability to endlessly curate is something that people understand and want to do?

I think people want personalisation and increasingly publishers are allowing them to do it. Facebook is playing a huge role in allowing readers to customise their experience, and Twitter is used as a personal newsfeed by millions. The Washington Post's Trove is a good example of a publisher allowing people to customise their experience.

 

Isn't this just glorified sharing and we are, in fact, giving something that is part of the architecture of hypertext, just a new term? Are we lessening the meaning of "real" curation (eg art exhibitions)? Aren't we just throwing lots of ephemeral content around?

Curation is an awkward term. I would use it sparingly.

 

Can curation add value to content, and if so, how?

Content is what people read, curation is how they might receive it. We're talking about distribution here - the marketing and consumption of text, pictures and video. Everyone needs to care about how what they produce is discovered and consumed - which is why this debate matters.

 

Philip John is part of the team behind The Lichfield Blog, and is founder of Journal Local.

Steven Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of content curation and aggregation company Magnify.net, and author of Curation Nation.

Patrick Smith is editor of The Media Briefing.


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