Apr 06 2010

Social Media Content Curators Are Not “Just Filters”

Published by at 9:58 pm under social media,technology

We are now fully immersed in the era of the information stream. The stream requires new ways of curating relevant information, even as we grapple with insufficient tools. But, as the content universe grows rapidly, our capacity for curation must find new ways to scale.

Museum curators don’t like the idea that the tech world has started talking about curation of social media, news, and other information streams. In response to my recent post on the four types of content curation on the web, Eric Johnson tweeted that I wasn’t really talking about curation at all – all of this online social media stream stuff is really just filtering. He is not alone – many in the museum community share this view.

In fact, Pete at Newcurator got quite horked by all of these new self-proclaimed curators. He declares that if you need to ask yourself if you are a curator, then “you are (just) a filter.” Because, I guess, when you are a curator, you just know. How do you know? Pete says that you know because you have had many, many years of experience and you have deep expertise in the subject that you are curating. You are creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, museum curators are not the most plebeian of peoples. And they have worked very hard and crammed their heads with many pieces of information (and – it must be said – played politics well) to get where they are. So, I can understand why they bristle at the use of such a rarefied word for the rabble-rousing, messy, unseemly world of social media.

But, they are dead wrong. People are curating the social stream. And, the curation process is more crucial than ever because of the sheer volume to wade through. According to PostRank, 97% of the content produced on the internet never gets any social interaction at all. Imagine all the juicy bits that we are missing right now!

This is how the Traditional Fine Arts Organization defines curation:

(A) process of identification and organization of artworks in order to further knowledge. Curation includes verification and additions to the existing documentation for objects. Curators…direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections…They are also responsible for authenticating, evaluating, and categorizing the specimens in a collection.

Despite being from an organization that promotes museums, this definition doesn’t really get to the heart of curation, so I’ll go out on my own, and say that curation is the act of synthesizing and interpreting in order to present a complete record of a concept. That concept might be the history of French impressionism; it might be the Qin Dynasty; or it might be the changing norms of what to share on Facebook.

Curators take all of the information available as of “right now,” and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That means that curation by definition reflects a mutable world. Obviously, the 1985 exhibition of Keith Haring’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux, France was very different from the 1999 City Gallery retrospective of Haring in Wellington, New Zealand. By the time of the latter show, Haring had created more work; he had died; and many of the themes of his work had been incorporated into popular culture. Although the subject matter was the same, the two shows came to different conclusions.

It is, of course, the same in social media. Social media curators direct the audience toward important information (hopefully, soon through click-to-curate functionality), provide context and commentary (through blogging and longer forms of synthesis and interpretation), authenticating claims (by researching sources or creating original work to ensure they pass on quality information), and indexing information (through blog tags, hashtags, Twitter lists, etc). The only difference is that the process happens much more quickly now.

In fact, Pete at Newcurator created a tag cloud around the concept of curation that I find particularly enlightening:

It’s enlightening, of course, because of how similar curation is to the most basic premise of social media. Many of the biggest terms in the “curation” cloud would be similarly at home in a “social media” cloud:

  • people
  • information
  • connections
  • knowledge
  • “making choices”
  • interpret
  • sharing
  • available
  • audience
  • conversation
  • entertaining

In the top tier of terms, only “art” and “history” stand out as having no obvious similarity to social media. And that’s only because of the worldview that Pete, as a museum curator, brings to the cloud (also, what sweet irony it is to use a tag cloud to curate the definition of the word curation instead of writing it out!)

Is all social media engagement an act of curation? Of course not. Is it a curated experience every time you see a painting? Social media are just platforms; they are used for many different reasons. One way that some people use social streams is to curate information. And this has great value because the difference that a curated stream makes for the user is incredible: suddenly, concepts link together – they have a greater meaning. Links to articles illuminate various points within a debate. Themes build over time, as new information comes into the stream.

This is just another case of the democratization of information threatening people with deep expertise because they are in danger of disintermediation. The curator is dead; long live the curator.

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