Some say “curation” is one of the most overused buzzwords of the day. Guilty as charged. I use the word often because it encapsulates the value of linking in media: finding the best that already exists so you need not repeat the effort; sharing audience with work that deserves attention; complementing your work with that of others.
What does a curator do? In museums, libraries, galleries, and wine cellars, curators search for, gather, select, authenticate, add context and explanation to, present, and recommend whatever it is they collect. These are all skills needed in news today, in a new and messy ecosystem of many voices, some good and some reliable, many not. When mass media found itself competing for attention with the voices of the masses, I heard journalists again and again challenging me with the same question: How will anyone know how to find news to trust? The answer I learned to give to them and to my entrepreneurial students: Where you see a problem, find the opportunity. Engineers look for problems to solve. Journalists too often find a problem, then report on it or complain about it and stop. If there are too many voices, opinions, eyewitness accounts, and information of all sorts, then find the best. Curate.
There are a few flavors of curation: We read so you don’t have to, scouring the web to find the best stuff (whether “best” means highest quality or most authoritative or most relevant); curating eyewitness accounts as Andy Carvin did in the Arab Spring (finding people who are on the scene and who are reliable); and collecting opinion or mood (here are representative, telling samples of what we used to hear on the street but now hear on Twitter). We have various means to do this: manually sifting through piles of words or images and using judgment to select what’s notable; using data as signals of quality, authority, and originality (the Google way); or building platforms that allow a community to collaborate on the task of curation (voting up or down the good stuff, in the community’s view, the Reddit way). In any case, the curator — to be worthy of the title — must add judgment to be more than merely an aggregator.
Sadly, too much of the aggregation and curation we’ve seen to date has been the product of laziness, cost-cutting, or the pursuit of easy money. It’s expensive to make content, so why not just collect and link to everyone else’s, rewriting it just enough along the way to get a click and serve an ad? Why not have an algorithm do what an editor used to do, losing a job and gaining cheap content? Various News Corp. executives characterize aggregation in general and Google News in particular — in descriptions aggregated by Arianna Huffington — as “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet,” and thieves who “steal our copyright.”
As early as 2009, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt responded that Google News was sending one billion clicks a month — Google as a whole three billion a month — to publishers. “That is 100,000 opportunities a minute to win loyal readers and generate revenue — for free,” he wrote. Right. Curation — being curated — is a means of discovery and distribution for content. In an ecosystem of abundant content and no end of competitors for a reader’s attention, publishers should want to be curated so that readers may find their content. Later, in a discussion of the link economy and copyright, I will explore the business implications of valuing not only the creation of content but also the creation of an audience for it — sometimes, through curation.