Mar 20 2010

Curation Makes the Difference, or Why Seth Godin is (Finally) Wrong About Something

Published by at 2:36 pm under curation,social media,technology

Seth Godin has an interesting post about the rise of “drive by culture”. He argues that the dramatic rise in content found online, and the incredible ease of finding it, has created a culture of “clickers, stumblers, and jaded spectators.”

He is right. But he also misses the (obvious) way to fix this.

Godin first lauds the creators, makers, and designers for bringing life into the web, and for pushing boundaries. And, he decries those that shift to the lowest common denominator to please the masses (take that, HuffPo). He even berates his own readers, stating, “I’m guessing that more than half the people who started reading this post never finished it.”

But, that logic is fundamentally flawed, because Godin has surmounted the greatest challenge of the web: the challenge of curation. People read what he writes all the way through, because he has something important to say. We are just now coming to grips with the challenge of curation, and it will be the greatest challenge in the next decade of web content.

The web has put the power of publishing into each individual’s hands. With the advent of extremely simple publishing tools like Tumblr and Posterous, (quite literally) anyone can toss up words, images and video for the world to see. This is a story that has already been told; the ease of publishing has unleashed a torrent of content creation, such that 20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

And, of course, that means that there is a lot of stuff online that is really bad. I mean really, really terrible stuff. Most of the time, though, the stuff we look at online is halfway decent, but just not interesting for us. I am not really into horses (despite my employer’s name), but there are great horse blogs out there.

So, we fumble our way from link to link, bumping through lots of stuff that just doesn’t quite apply right now, looking for that one spark of brilliance that is perfect for this particular moment. That’s what has turned us into a bunch of fleeting, fly-by-night audiences.

The issue of content quality is exacerbated by the fact that we are skilling up on how to use these new tools, and production quality suffers as a result. I have read amazing ideas by people that don’t know how to write well. Believe me, it is a tough slog. More commonly, there are moments of brilliance in many, many videos, but they are often so poorly produced, that they are annoying to watch.

Hence, the need for curation. Call it editorial, call it filters, or call it coolhunting. We go to trusted sources in order to raise the signal, and lessen the noise. We have some serious curation issues right now, and lots of smart people trying to address that problem.

Here are the ways people are trying to improve web curation:

Editorial: these are individuals that make decisions about what is worthwhile to promote. Examples include:

  • Large, sophisticated blogs, with millions of pageviews per month, run with a similar hierarchy to magazines – there are layers of editing, concept vetting, story pitches, etc.
  • Individual bloggers make decisions about what to write and who to link to from their blog.
  • Websites without a strong content focus, that still must decide what to feature on the home page or other heavily trafficked pages

Crowdsourcing: this uses the audience to help guide decision-making about what is important. Examples include:

  • Social sharing sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, and Reddit, where the audience can vote on what is important or relevant to the community
  • Social bookmarking sites, like Delicious.com, where individual users make notes for themselves, which are aggregated, and allow for a force ranking of importance

Algorithms: this is when the coders assign importance based on rules that are written into the system themselves. Decisions about implementation, spam control and how to prevent gaming the system have an impact on all users. Examples include:

  • Twitter’s Trending Topics – this is a very simple example, where the algorithm says “whatever word or phrase has the most tweets about it should appear on everyone’s home page.”
  • Google, Bing and other search providers – the heart of search is about filtering content for relevance.
  • PostRank uses amount of commentary, conversation, and buzz to determine relevance.

The Social Graph: this is using your social connections in combination with one of the above methods. Examples include:

  • Surfing Facebook for news and links – this is the purest form using your friends to help show you what’s important. Social Graph + Editorial
  • Asking your Twitter followers to help you solve a problem – Social + Crowdsourcing
  • Looking at your Facebook “Top News,” instead of the “Live Feed” – by using Facebook’s algorithm to determine what is most important, you are using Social + Algorithm

Improving all four of these curation methods will be the biggest challenge of the next ten years of the web – in particular, because so much more content will be coming online. The rise of lifestreaming is causing a new flood of content that needs to be sifted, sorted, prioritized, and filtered. Content farms like Demand Media also churn out gads of new information. And, we’re not quite plateaued with just plain old blogging – there are, after all, a few billion more people to get onto the internet.

Of course, Seth Godin is one of the most respected thinkers about marketing and the web. That’s why he is wrong – his reputation ensures that people will read what he has to say. He has demonstrated an amazing ability to curate important conversations over years through the use of his own editorial abilities (interestingly, he does not allow comments on his blog, so can’t really take advantage of crowdsourcing much; but of course, gets a strong bump from the social graph. He lets his editorial capacity take care of the algorithms – when someone asks him how to find him, he responds, “Google Seth.”)

Did I miss any curation methods? Let me know in the comments.

10 responses so far

  • Interestingly, where PostRank started (when we were AideRSS) was helping people with curation in the wide world of RSS feeds. Managing “information overload” and all that.

    In the almost three years since, we still do that, but have moved to helping publishers and networks curate both their own content and their audiences.

    What seems to be the way things are going is that those who are savvy are using those kinds of tools to build and improve their own presence, platform, and voice — to become trusted curators for others.

    There will always be a cohort who are more than happy to let invisible algorithms and other companies/apps decide for them what's “important” to read/follow, but in my experience, it's a limited group and its size doesn't really seem to change much.

    We're pretty much wired to prefer getting the goods from other people. Though, unfortunately, that hits up against that other problem that machines DO excel at and we don't: scalability. 🙂

  • Hi PostRank! Love you guys, and the great work you do. You are a great combination of a couple of the forms that I outline above, specifically: Editorial + Algorithms.

    The ability for individuals to curate their own editorial content, plus the ability to filter using your algorithms, makes you an incredible resource that I turn to daily.

    How about some social capital/identity capabilities? Can't I get credit for a great list of resources I put together? And follow the resources that people I respect put together?

    I'd love to talk more about this offline too.

  • Hi Jamie – I'd love to hear more about how you envision those functions working. Give me a holler and we can discuss in more detail and/or set up a call if you prefer – melanie@postrank.com.

  • rupakdey

    At last, something worth reading 🙂

  • J.H.

    This is a centuries old problem. May I humbly point out that the lede in journalism was invented specifically to address this issue? Who, what, when, where, why and how at the top, all because information had to be short and to the point to sell. Why does the online generation believe they invented this idea? Lrn2history, ppl! Seth – and everyone – would be wise to assume no one reads past the first few ideas.

  • J.H.,

    You're right, but this problem is much more extreme with the web. Within a matter of hours of surfing online, neural pathways are remapped to graze on information. This makes it tougher to move information from short term to long term memories.

    Check out this recent Wired article for more details (which even addresses your point about newspapers): http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nichol

  • For every catastrophic forecast, there’s an important overlooked aspect. Seth’s forecast was no exception.

    There’s also a recent thread now on content aggregation. Besides classifying content, curators aggregate it under common themes. Some recent tools are curated.by for collecting tweets or bagtheweb for collecting links. I’m also working on an similar product called Bundlr for collecting all kinds of content.

    It’s really an hot subject now. There’s still much room for innovations.

  • This is great – bagtheweb looks especially useful. I wonder if curated.by is concerned about Twitter’s ever-hungry functionality replication that’s in the works. By diversifying beyond just Twitter, curation tools can continue to add value. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.storify.com is also another tool that do this kind of stuff.

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