Curating the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Katamari Damacy

The internet.

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.

(Now online: Part II. See also: “Credo: Addendum”

Bonus Smarts


12 thoughts on “Curating the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

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  2. I love how there’s a vibrant discussion regarding what is “curating” in the world outside of museums and art. There are passionate opinions about the issue from within the traditional institutions as to what’s going on “outside,” but I hadn’t realized the extent to which people are talking about this in terms of what it means for people working with online content who are calling themselves and others curators. I also find it heartening that no matter who is talking about curating in any kind of context, there’s an inevitable tendency to parse out what counts as curating and what doesn’t — like there’s some sort of innate desire to protect the cachet of expertise associated with the term “curator.” (i.e. a connoisseurship of curators)

  3. A very nice article and excellent introduction, Erin. However, you’ve not mentioned the root of curation as it pertains to librarians and information management in your first post when discussing the origins and I’m wondering whether we’ve omitted a critical context. What do you think?

    As a content strategist, how does the role of the librarian impact your perspective of how brands and companies should manage their marketing and publishing activities online? Is it relevant? Does it matter? Is there anything to learn from that role, as through the lens of the curator?

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  5. @kidredd and @Carl: I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts!

    @Elizabeth: Thank you so much for stopping by, and for commenting. (I owe you an email, too! The last few days have been a bit of a blur.)

    Even as I try to avoid the terminology debate, I find myself unable to avoid drawing my own lines — you must be this tall to ride the Curation Express, that sort of thing. (As a semi-closeted academic, I do feel protective of extra-commercial intellectual activity.)

    @Taariq: Are you asking if librarianship plays a role in content strategy? I think library science is quite thoroughly intertwingled with information architecture, and with the ‘techier’ aspects of content strategy, certainly — taxonomic processes, finding aids, all that sort of thing is directly derived from library work.

    As far as the relationship between librarianship as a whole and content, I’m afraid that’s another whole article. (One I’d be interested in reading, as I’ve always been an amateur library nerd.)

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  9. Thanks for rationalizing the curation discussion for me. I’m involved in a project that requires curation the work being as in your second definition.
    I innocently started looking for software to help us accomplish what we require and instead found a plethora of sites describing “curation” software that had nothing to do with our needs. Now I know why: writing software that will analyze many, many disparate elements that are textual, visual and audio in nature and then finding a context and placing them within that context for easy retrieval will be a real bear. But that is what we have to do. I’m still hopeful that we’ll find some tools that may help, but if we don’t, at least I understand why now.

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