(Part one in a five-part series. Intro post is here.)
One of the snarls in the content curation discussion is a problem of definition: leaving aside the ethical, aesthetic, and logical questions about the relation of museum or gallery curation to the online world, what do we—web people—mean when we say “content curation”?
Completists may wish to scan the Content Strategy Google Groups thread[1. Content Strategy Google Groups curation thread] or the Brain Traffic blog’s curation post comments[2. Brain Traffic curation post comments] to get a feel for the definitional debate, but I’m going skip to the end: it’s pretty clear we’re using one term for two very different activities:
- Content curation as filtering, selection, remixing, or mosaic. When someone says “real-time curation,” this is what they mean. When someone tries to sell you “curation software,” this is the activity they propose to support.
- Content curation as the collection, preservation, and ongoing stewardship of content. There are about four people talking about this kind of curation, but those four people are very smart.
Trying to discuss these two activities at once is like making cherries jubilee while hang gliding: fun, but eventually the wrong thing’s going to catch on fire and we’re all going to die. So I’m going to take them sequentially.
Today’s post and its sequel concentrate on the first sort of content curation; the subsequent pair of posts will deal with the second sort. After that, there will be either a wrap-up post with mini-interviews or a long page of velvet paintings.
Filtering Is What We Do
Like the Japanese object-collection game Katamari Damacy,[3. Katamari Damacy on TV Tropes] the internet is full of things. We need information mediators—spam filters, search engines, journalists, bloggers, friends, family members, government agencies, corporations, non-profits—to tell us what matters.
Happily, information mediation is already a central human function. Our brains filter out vast quantities of sensory info and pass along the relevant bits so that we can function without being distracted by the texture of our tee shirts or the scent of the ink in our pens. We’ve long had human and technological information mediators in place to help us replicate this mental process on a larger scale, but as Clay Shirky has pointed out, these filters have begun to fail.[4. “It’s Not Information Overload, It’s Filter Failure”] And thus we see a host of automated, semi-automated, and human attempts to turn Way Too Much Information into Just Enough Information.
This is all pretty straightforward until financial incentives rear up and send us careening into Bat Country.
Social Media Ruins Everything
“Content marketing” is a subset of online marketing and refers to the practice of publishing content online to attract the attention of potential buyers. At its best, content marketing helps organizations develop more useful content and fix broken publishing processes; at its worst, it boils down to such magical thinking as “social media will save you from the recession.” In either case, the field is made up of a voluble online community with the incentive to continuously reformulate its tenets to keep up with a rapidly evolving internet.
Here are a couple of definitions of the filter/mosaic sort of content curation from social media and content marketing people:
A Content Curator is someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares the best and most relevant content on a specific issue online. The most important component of this job is the word “continually.”[5. Rohit Bhargava]
Content curation is the act of continually identifying, selecting and sharing the best and most relevant online content and other online resources . . . on a specific subject to match the needs of a specific audience.[6. Ann Handley, @marketingprofs]
I define content curation as the process of assembling, summarizing and categorizing and interpreting information from multiple sources in a context that is relevant to a particular audience.[7. Paul Gillin @pgillin]
This sort of “curation” is an integral part of what bloggers, journalists, editors, and people with Tumblr accounts have been doing for lo these many years. Its recent cultural prominence is related to the rapid expansion of online publishing, but its sudden popularity on social media websites in particular can be traced to the moment at which organizations began to realize that “creating interesting content” is difficult, expensive, and highly competitive. As marketers sank beneath the weight of unrealistic content production schedules, some began to suggest that instead of creating content, businesses might simply quote from and link to content produced by others.
And thus were born companies, experts, and products dedicated to automating a kind of content curation that—if done poorly—simply replicates the irresponsible waste of human effort represented by the portals of the late 1990s. Except, you know, in “real time.”
Now Panic and Freak Out
Many consultants have suggested that if businesses want to succeed online, they should become content curators. So should they?
The simple answer is no. No one should reflexively pour time and money into “real-time curation,” because reflexes are a lousy way of making business decisions. Furthermore, when it’s used as a supposedly inexpensive substitute for a real content strategy, this kind of content curation is the definition of pounding sand down a rat-hole. You get tired and dirty while accomplishing nothing, and the rat has long since faffed off to watch Hulu. (There is a larger assumption at the root of this misapprehension of online content dynamics, which is that all companies should try to pump out as much “interesting content” as possible as a matter of course. But that’s a subject for another post.)
On the other hand, done well, this kind of curation can be useful to readers and can therefore be an effective marketing tool. Of course, doing it well requires a lot of time and money along with (yes) actual human skill. And the good news is that if you have a real communication strategy and the resources to support an online publishing process, you’re probably already curating content.
Doing It Well
The social media/content marketing fuss about content curation may have led a few marketing teams down the garden path, but it’s been a great favor to the larger community of people who make, publish, and tend online content. We have an opportunity to discuss this subset of online editorial work with a large, passionate group of people from many disciplines—and to learn from actual curators, whether they’re thoughtfully writing about the nature of curation itself[8. “Talking Curatorial-ly”] or suggesting that we all have our thumbs removed.[9. “You Are Not a Curator”]
This matters because we genuinely do need to get better at this work. Our readers need it. Our clients need to know how to do it, and to understand the difference between doing it well and doing it poorly.
And that’s what tomorrow’s post will be about. In the meantime, your homework is below.
- “Curation goes one step beyond aggregation by adding an active, ongoing editorial component.”
- “Curation is storytelling.”
- “Oh, look,” the Suits schemed, “If we aggregate all this material in one place, millions will have to come to us — and only us!!11one1 — for it. Nyahahaha.” (This one is 90% wrong, 10% dead on, and 50% very funny.)