How many curators does it take to curate a story about lightbulbs?

The concept of media curation has been around a long time. How long? Well, I can at least date it back to August of 2007, as that’s when I registered the domain CurationMedia.com, an address that re-directs to Hammock.com.

But somewhere along the way, the inherently-confusing metaphor of “curation” being applied to content on the web went from something like, “finding relevant content and pointing readers to it” to something like, “find content on other sites and simply re-write what they say and place it on our site and that’s okay, as long as somewhere you credit the source.”

During the first decade and a half of the browser-based web, there has been this back-and-forth war between two concepts (disclosure: I’m clearly on one side of this war). One side (the one I’m on), is summed up in a “rule” from Jeff Jarvis in 2007, “Cover what you know best, link to the rest.” The other side in this battle seems to believe they can re-create  what AOL was in the late 1990s — they want to be the internet. And anything on the real internet that might be of interest should be sucked into or “curated” into their world.

At first, the idea behind media curation (or “content curation”), was really good, and worked for all involved: In our busy and chaotic lives, we all have too little time so wouldn’t it be nice if someone (or some technology) went out and gathered up all the good stuff we might be missing. But since “reporting” or “editing” was not what some people (newspaper and magazine reporters and editors)  believed such content gatherers were doing, they felt a word was needed that sounded different from editor (but not as bad as “link collector”) thus the term “media curation” (or content curation) was born.

Curating (and its equally confusing co-joined twin, “aggregating”) was a great thing, back in the early days of “user-generated” publishing. Old-school curators like Drudge or Instapundit or Metafilter, heck, even Fark.com, would provide little more (or only) links to a blog post, and the resulting traffic could equal the traffic a blog like mine might typically receive in a month. Back in the day, blogs like Dave Winer’s Scripting.com was a model for me, as it was (and still  is) a great source of links to eclectic and interesting items he’d find on other sites. That became a model for how I blogged early on. (It’s also why Dave’s continuing work with developing ways to bookmark and distribute “curated” content via feeds reminds me of what was so good about early blogging — and why I’m glad he’s let me learn about what he’s doing by using it to create my own “LinkBlog“).

In the days when the term curation was still competing with its co-joined twin term , aggregation (I’m sure there are those who could split hairs on how they are different, but it’s just that — splitting hairs), I wrote a blog post daring to suggest that the word “curator” should be a term reserved for professionals with the skill to do things like stage art exhibits at the MoMA. Perhaps, that term, I dared to observe, is a bit too presumptuous to use for the act of sharing links on Twitter — something very kind and thoughtful to do, though it may be. Of course, my daring suggestion was ignored. (And, note the comments, rejected out-rightly.)

Over the past three or so years, the term media curation has evolved in its meaning to being less-and-less an act of help and service and more and more a term that’s used to add lipstick to a pig of a business model that is based on something like the following: “go re-write stuff you find elsewhere that’s about whatever is trending on Google and bury a link to them somewhere towards the end of the story” so we can claim it’s not merely re-writing their story.”

These websites may (or may not) have their own staff of writers (example: the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post does have a staff, a member of which won a Pulitzer Prize that enables them to say, “the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post”). Be they staffed with writers or not, these sites still are primarily manned and womaned by individuals who re-write stories that appear on other sources  (example: the Huffington Post, when not winning a Pulitzer, is busy re-writing New York Times articles, or re-writing blog posts with words found on the trending topics of Google and Twitter .).

While I believe “curation media” (did I mention I own the URL, CurationMedia.com?) can be a helpful service to readers, the act of writing a story that rehashes another story — without adding some insight or background — is a disservice to all involved.

Ironically (or obviously), some of the best curated media around is from news sources that the most offensive fake-curators re-write,  New York Times reporters who use Twitter and point to stories both in the NYTimes and other sources they are monitoring, including blogs and competitors. (Best example I follow: NYT assistant managing edit Jim Roberts is a rock-star curator on Twitter: @NYTJim)

(Self-promoting side note: If you follow @R on Twitter, you know that linking to things I find interesting is at least 80% of what I do there).

But there is nothing good about, nor is it “curation,” to simply re-write, with no additional insight or context or response or added wisdom, another individual’s or organization’s story. (Heck, I’m happy to let most sites re-use my posts than re-write them.)

If this re-writing thing keeps proliferating, then we’ll see more of the kind of absurdity I ran across on Wednesday evening, reproduced at the top of this post. Apparently, the “writer” of the story did nothing more than rewrite a blog post that was a list of ideas the blogger re-wrote (and turned into a slideshow) from ideas he picked up from a book. No doubt, the ideas found in the book, were “curated” by the author.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the act of sharing articles you run across is anything but good. I’m not even suggesting that websites like Huffington Post or Business Insider are nothing more than re-writing services. (I’m not “suggesting” it, as it’s well known.)

This is the bottom line: To be of any value (or to prevent you from appearing foolish), your curation needs to be more than merely re-writing something that has already been re-written one or two times.

If you feel the need to do that, just link.

There is bad curation: Re-writing someone eles’s re-write.

And there is good curation: Using your expertise to find great content,  and find new or helpful ways to point others to it.

  • http://www.domesticatingit.com/ JonDiPietro

    Reminds me of the movie Multiplicity and the danger of making a “copy of a copy.” It just never ends well.

  • Aaron Pressman

    Agree a thousands times over. Coming from my world of finance, we call this bogus strategy a form of web “arbitrage” — search engines when faced with numerous posts about the same topic will raise up the posts from the most trafficked and popular and clicked on web sites.

    So if you stand a top a giant media brand, or even if you have built a hugely successful web site from scratch with original content, you can “leverage” this position to capture vastly more clicks in from search engines by tacking on low-cost, pseudo content on popular topics.

    I don’t think there’s really any fix for it beyond trying to create an atmosphere of social shame and, as individual curator/link promulgators, doing our best to make sure we are linking to original content and not recompilers as often as we can.

    Finally, I’d add a note of thus has it ever been. Almost 25 years ago, one of the first articles I wrote for “The IPO Reporter” — my first job out of college — was about some human rights groups concerned about a new fund investing in Chile. A few days later, the exact story quoting the same groups mysteriously appeared in the Wall Street Journal. And so it went for the first ten years of my career until, at some point, I progressed to write articles at Businessweek based on things I read in trade newsletters. There has always been what I call a “food chain” of media, though perhaps is it much more obvious, flagrant or commonplace now.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks, Aaron. I’ll start referring to such articles as “arbitrage re-writes” — and perhaps it’s the evolution of something already bad — sloppy or lazy news reporting — to something that is sloppy and bad and encouraged — arbitrage re-writes designed to game Google — that is the root of my disdain of this.

  • http://twitter.com/davidgammel David Gammel

    Great post. It seemed so much more honest when we just called it link blogging. Bad curation (as you define it) is the credit default swap of online content: it makes the publisher some money but it’s toxic to the rest of the system.

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