On Curation and Eyeballs
Last year, about 7.3 million people went to the Louvre in Paris. This figure was reported as “disappointing”, as it was down from 8.6 million in 2015 and 9.3 million in 2014. Whatever way you look at it though, that’s a lot of people turning up to take photos of the backs of other people taking photos of the Mona Lisa (jokes).
Every month, 40 million people visit WeTransfer. One third of the background images, or wallpapers, they saw were artworks curated by my team. We showed these creative visuals one billion times to people during 2016.
I am self-aware enough to appreciate that visiting the Louvre is not the same as sending a file on our site and maybe noticing the artwork. Nor am I comparing what we do here to what the Louvre’s world-class experts have dedicated their lives to doing.
But not that many people are aware of what our editorial team does, how we support creatives on the platform or how we choose which work to feature.
The sheer numbers are interesting too. There are not many platforms showcasing creative work to as many people anywhere in the world as WeTransfer. That brings pride. It brings pressure. But first, a word about process.
There are four people who work mainly on the curation, and we all have different ways of finding interesting and inspiring work. A lot of it comes from the impossibly dense, hard-to-define online mass — from social media and creative blogs and design websites. We get tips from our colleagues here at WeTransfer, and suggestions from our own networks for people we should be taking a look at. Lots of people suggest themselves too, either via our dedicated firstname.lastname@example.org email address, or personal emails to our staff.
The year is split up into three week sessions, and so every three weeks the curation process peaks. The first sift is very personal, albeit with some inherent and often unspoken guidelines — things we have featured a lot, or very recently are out, things we’d love to feature more are in.
We come together in WeTransfer’s biggest meeting room to make our selections. With such a small group there is no need for such a big space of course, but with its commanding view across the river, it adds a nice edge of gravitas.
There are no set criteria of what we are looking for. It sounds obvious, but the imagery has to work in the specific visual context of a wallpaper (a few projects, for example, fall away due to the immovability of the transfer box on the left hand side of the screen, not a challenge the Louvre gang face very often).
It should be either an original idea, or an original take on an idea we have seen before.
It should be well-crafted. About 12 months ago we dropped the word “beautiful” as being too subjective. Within such a small team, we need to check our own predilections and prejudices and work hard to understand how something we may not personally like has a place on our platform.
It should be diverse; not only in terms of creative disciplines, but also in the gender split of artists we feature and the countries we showcase. We’ve improved on these measures, but there is still work to do.
Each of us is aware of the responsibility we have to promote different types of creative brilliance made by different types of people from different countries and different backgrounds.
Last year, unannounced, we ran an all-female session. This year, we have been going after a mix of artists that represent every continent in every session.
About one artist in four from that meeting makes our final list. Another one in four is kept on the list for consideration in a future session. The rest are cut at that stage although, nursing our rejections, most of us are sure to keep an eye on their work and try and engineer an excuse to bring them back at a later date.
For each session, we usually give each artist 10–12 million page impressions, and they can request which link they would like people clicking on the image to be directed to. We also run a feature on the artist and their work on our blog, This Works (the site gets about 500,000 unique users a month).
Some artists, often WeTransfer users themselves, are delighted. Others take a little convincing.
And some reject us flat out, which is also fine. From that last group, we get comments about people not wanting their work to be used by a commercial company.
This is an interesting issue. If we commission new work from an artist, we always pay them. The imagery we run as wallpapers is always existing work.
We don’t pay the artists we curate on the site; we see the exchange more like a magazine or a newspaper, where we provide a stage for their work alongside the ads we sell in the same space. Most people accept that analogy. Some people don’t, which means we have more work to do to shift how we are seen in the community.
I hope the overwhelming majority of people we have featured down the years — being a creative showcase has been a core part of our DNA since we launched in 2009 — would have good things to say about the experience. It definitely drives a lot of traffic to people’s sites, and anecdotally we hear this leads to all sorts of opportunities. One young photographer we featured last year got a job offer from a major LA-based music producer who’d spotted her work on the site.
When you think about the numbers, it can feel quite overwhelming. To be able to say to someone that we will show their work to people all around the world at least ten million times in the next three weeks is very special. But the flipside is that we have to say no to far more stuff than we say yes to.
We always want to hear from creatives and see their work. This year we will be trialling some open call sessions, asking for existing work on a specific theme that will be selected by a jury. If it’s a success, we plan to make that a regular thing.
To be able to spend your working day looking at all manner of art — from photography and illustration to painting, film and fashion — is a genuine, boundless joy. That’s maybe one thing my team and the Louvre’s curators would have in common, were we to get together.