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Curation nation

by Kristina Halvorson on June 21st, 2010

Curation! O hai, new buzzword.

Content strategists, you’re likely already talking about curation. If you’re not, here’s the general premise:

1. There’s too much content out there.
2. Aggregating everything in one place—the “more content =  more information = more value” formula—has been an unmitigated disaster.
3. Somebody—or something—needs to filter results to ensure that the content that’s being delivered to an individual or audience is relevant, useful, and satisfying.
4. Enter curation.

Great. We get that. This is a much better formula: curation = something or someone reviews a bunch of content (or apps) and finds the good stuff so I don’t have to.

But is that actually curation? Let us discuss.

Here’s how Dictionary.com defines it:

Late 14c., from O.Fr. curacion  from L. curationem , noun of action from curare  "to cure" (see cure)

Oh. Well. That’s not very helpful. Let’s try Oxford Dictionary for the verb, “curate”:

To select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition).

Ah. I like where this is headed.

Lots of people have lots of ideas about content curation. Here are a few ideas I've curated (or something) from around the interwebs:

Curation works differently than simple search aggregation.  Through advanced data tracking or human intervention, or both, content can be refined so as to be more pertinent to a given search. Rather than returning all the results, curation helps to build a collection of the most valuable results. – Mike Dilberto, Curation: It’s Not Just for Museums Anymore

If you think, as I do, that the mere act of editing adds value, does Google’s new test of human selection vs. algorithmic feed pass from the realm of “mere” aggregation into curation territory? How much value do we have to add before we call ourselves curators? – Ian Greenleigh, Am I Curating Yet?

The curator is an information chemist. He or she mixes atoms together in a way to build an info-molecule. Then adds value to that molecule. – Robert Scoble, The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators

(I have no idea what Scoble is talking about, but as I’ve never had the opportunity to quote him in this blog before, I thought I’d jump on it here.)

If you're into curation and you want to make it a regular thing, there are some really interesting platforms in place (and more popping up) to support everything from individual to social media to enterprise content curation. And I understand why: if we’re going to invest time and energy in culling through all this content, we might as well invest money in smart tools to help us do it.

Now. There are some folks who believe that content creation "may not result in measurably better content than content curation.” Still others believe the idea of “curation” is a huge copout that allows us to continue to ignore the content mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Or, as Mike Kane says in his post, Curation: A Dead Idea of Dead Thinking:

“Curation” and “curator” are the new buzzwords the dying dinosaurs of oldthink print publishing are clinging to just like overboarded Titanic passengers clung to skimpy lifebuoys in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

(Mmmmm. Delicious mixed metaphors.) Oh, also? You are not a curator:

You are, at best, a filter. You may make a name for yourself by excelling at some kind of selection process, but you are not a curator. “Curator” does not mean “I have good taste”. That just makes you some kind of fleshy gauze for the rest of us. The good come to us whilst all the pus and snot that came through your information media streams stay on your side. You are a makeshift step before a more advanced algorithm is invented.


As usual, our position here at Brain Traffic is this: we don’t care what you call it. If it’s needed, just do the work. And I think this activity of content curation is much needed.

As content strategists, it is in fact our job to sort through the wasteland of content—both online and within the organizations we serve—to find the really valuable assets, to organize them in meaningful ways, and to ensure they’re properly cared for over time.

That’s my take on this whole curation situation. What’s yours?

Follow Kristina on Twitter:

  • http://jtramsay.com J T. Ramsay

    Not only has the whole concept of content curation been rendered meaningless by its incessant use, it's not new at all. Sifting through stories, ideas, what have you is something that editors have been doing for a century or so. It's only novel to folks who don't regularly engage an audience.

  • http://knowledgebishop.wordpress.com/ KnowledgeBishop

    Dilberto’s definition makes sense to me, especially the words “refined so as to be more pertinent”. For me, when I need a quick answer, too much content is worse than too little. Right now, when I go to a consumer site for self-service support, I feel like Horton the Elephant crawling through clover, searching for WhoVille. I hope to spare my customers from the clover crawl. I think it’s a sign of respect when a company invests time in advance, in order to save time for their customers. On a similar note, I’m fascinated by the technology behind Amazon’s authenticated “recommendations”, as well as the gradual refinement of suggestions one receives on StumbleUpon. So I am exploring ways to combine our proactive content strategy work with authentication and automated delivery. After writing all that, I don't know if I can call it “curation” or not. Looking forward to your take on it.

  • http://twitter.com/jdavidhobbs David Hobbs

    Back in the day I competed in local art competitions, and there was always a theme. Part of what the judge (curator) did was emphasize a wide range of points of view, mediums, etc. So part of good curation is not only making things coherent, or “the best”, but making sure different voices are heard (while also making sure that some standards are met). In other words, making it interesting.

  • clintonforry

    Yay curation! I have been all giddy about all of the recent conversations surrounding it.

    I wrote a blog post about Curation Vs. Aggregation and velvet paintings back in November – http://www.content-ment.com/2009/11/curation-ve...

    Curation needs content. Sometimes content needs the things that only curation can provide [context, comment, and corollaries] to fully come to life.

    The other side of the coin from the content creator's perspective is to determine if you want your content to be easily curated by others.

    The opportunity exists for extended reach and exposure. How much or how little your content ends up in the pool from which curators are able to draw is something that must be carefully considered.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dsprick Dedrick Sprick

    Overall, I like the ideal of what a curator is and how it can be applied to content. However, I think something we all need to remember is that people put out their titles and don't educate themselves about the true complexity of the tasks at hand.

    The danger right now is that laypeople may take on the role of “curator” without really “doing the work”. A person who starts a blog isn't necessarily a “writer” and someone who can tinker with their photos in editing software isn't instantly a “graphic designer”.

    On the flip side, I think content does require curation, in that a subject matter expert must know how to present content in order to create a particular experience. This may include any number of skills, and it may take some time getting the right system into place to support efficient curation. Hopefully, by using this particular buzzword, we can understand the work that needs to done better, rather than having a term that gets watered down by the unwilling.

  • http://danzambonini.com spxdcz

    Having worked closely with the museum and gallery sector for 10 years, I have to say that I find the term 'curator' both naive and insulting.

    A curator does more than filtering, or even 'filtering with a theme', or editing, or whatever the new 'curation' is. As I said in a tweet yesterday, one of the main differentiating factors for me is that a 'real' curator *cares for* (not 'cares about') their collection. It's not a ephemeral 'choose it, post it, next one' relationship, which so many of the modern 'curators' seem to do.

    A museum/gallery curator has a long-term duty of care over their collection; it's not about constantly looking for the next acquisition, looking to get the next set of 'curated' information out. Of course, curation is a whole lot more (including training, outreach, documentation, research), but to simplify the matter I like to use this 'care for' topic.

    I'm all for language changing and evolving – I'm with Stephen Fry on that. Language isn't sacred, we should be pleased to see new ways of using old words. But a curator is something specific. Like the 'citizen journalism' of old, it can be a degrading term to the professionals who have spent years training to be a real curator/journalist, and understands all the nuances of the job.

    If we want to be playful with words, can we perhaps not choose a different word that doesn't hold such specific meaning in the first place? I guess we don't have a choice now – the internet meme gods have spoken – but just thought I'd register my discomfort with it! (Though, if it does 'stick', I reserve the right to start using it in blog posts for SEO purposes!) :)

  • @mgrocki

    JT, my man, you hit right on the head with your last sentence.

    “It's only novel to folks who don't regularly engage an audience.”

    And how much of the whoee you have read online does not regularly engage an audience? Hint: A LOT.

    Enter curation. Not because it's sexy, but because writing has always been an intrinsically passionate endeavor. The term is applicable today because if there is not someone who is passionate about the lifecycle of what we read, the content fails.

    Does this mean I am printing 5,000 t-shirts with Curation Nation on the front and back? No. It's a word that helps bind passion with words. It's another tool in a content strategist toolbelt that helps promote our work and bridge the gap between what we read and who cares for it.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    >> one of the main differentiating factors for me is that a 'real' curator *cares for* (not 'cares about') their collection. It's not a ephemeral 'choose it, post it, next one' relationship, which so many of the modern 'curators' seem to do.

    Actually, that's part of why I *like* the word “curator”: it puts the onus of the ongoing care and feeding of content on the person who's publishing the posts.

    I agree that this “launch it and leave it” mentality is one of the worst scourges of our industry. So maybe by using the word “content curator”…and defending its meaning…we can create new associations with the activity. Specifically, that content is a commitment. Not a commodity.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    >> A person who starts a blog isn't necessarily a “writer” and someone who can tinker with their photos in editing software isn't instantly a “graphic designer”.

    Really? Why not?

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    I would like one of those t-shirts. And a toolbelt.

  • http://bazaarvoice.com/blog Ian Greenleigh

    Win. Still can't tell if you're making fun of me or not, but I'll take the link either way ;-)

    This is what good blogging-for-your-business looks like.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    No! I'm not making fun of you! But I might be making fun of the guy who says “pus and snot” just a little bit. Great post.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dsprick Dedrick Sprick

    Well, to put it simply, I think you can't really know your art unless you can intentionally create a semantic effect. With writing, I can put all kinds of words down on paper, but do I actually make a point effectively? With pictures, I can change eye color, crop out that weird looking thing in the background or whatever, but can I convey a meaningful moment? I could go on and on with different art forms, but basically, it comes down to merely tinkering with something for fun or actually learning to control the expression through discipline.

  • http://danzambonini.com spxdcz

    I (respectfully) disagree.

    The modern use of the word 'curator' is applied to those who filter/select/edit/aggregate/choose/collect/whatever-but-not-curate content, not the content owners. That's going to be a very difficult thing to change. Web apps are now beginning to use the labeling 'Curated by' and 'Curator' in their text, in the context of people who can easily select and re-publish *others'* content (see: Pinterest).

    These people cannot be – and, anecdotally, have no intention of being – owners of or responsible for the original content. 'Curators' are the middle-men, the filters.

    We can't now change who 'curator' refers to. Few people think that the original content owner/creator is the 'curator'. So by perpetuating this term, are we not confusing the situation? If the 'curator' is, in the traditional sense, the person who 'cares for' the lifecycle of the content, yet the term is referring to someone who has neither the technology nor the ownership nor the inclination to do so, we aren't putting the onus on anyone. We are just muddying the waters with mixed terms and definitions.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Hm. I don't really see it like that. I think no one really wants to be responsible for the care and feeding of content, in general, which is what content strategists everywhere are working to change.

    The bottom line, I guess, is that it doesn't really matter what we call it, as long as we're doing it. Anyhow, people call themselves all different kinds of things without really knowing what they're doing. See: “I'm a social media guru!” Heh.

  • http://twitter.com/halvorson Kristina Halvorson

    Huh. I still don't know why someone can't lay claim to the title “writer” even if they're not doing a good job.

  • http://www.Twitter.com/TheGirlPie @TheGirlPie

    Oh Kristina, what a smart/fun post;
    good points and great voice.
    My take on the whole curation sitch?
    “What she said.”


  • http://twitter.com/SecretDiary Secret Diary

    Content curation is not a new concept. Content curation is about internet traffic generation. What Scoble was talking about on his blog is a very easy, simple and very useful idea. It can be applied to any industry or trade website or blog. The perfect example of content curation is what Guy Kawasaki of http://AllTop.com does. For example, I blog about Personal Development / Self-Help, etc. As content Curator, every week or anytime I feel like it, I use Copernic Agent Professional software Copernic Summarizer software and search for specific keyword to find great / helpful articles on the web. Those who have written about those subjects may not have titled them correctly or their site has low traffic or not optimized for the search engines, etc. So, I copy the link of the specific article, use TweetDeck or HootSuite or TinyUrl to shrink the url, write a small intro paragraph, post it on my blog, then tag it. And because my blog is linked to my Google Profile and Buzz, the item blogged automatically goes on my Google Buzz page. As time goes on, on, on… I gain traffic on that article for doing not much but I've helped content owner to gain traffic to their site. And I also help my site visitors (who may not know the right keywords to use to dig out the info they want from the search engines) to find / read great contents. It’s a good idea. It can be applied to so many types of themed blogs / sites. Remember, the more pages / content you create, frequently, on your blog, the higher you rank on Google, etc. Simples. To learn more, Google “Content Curator”, and Google: “Content Curation”

  • http://www.perfectporridge.com/ Greg Swan

    I think the gurus are now calling themselves ninjas (note: also lame)

  • http://www.perfectporridge.com/ Greg Swan

    Have you checked out AOL's Seed? They're going to crowd source content and then curate what they get into their content properties. Oh, and from my understanding, sell advertorial w/o disclaimers throughout. If this is the future of crowd sourcing and/or curation, I think I'm going to puke.

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  • http://incisive.nu/2010/the-curate-and-the-curato/ The Curate and the Curator : Incisive.nu

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