According to trend scouts on the Internet and in the features pages, 2011 was the year of the curators. Not the real-life curators, who have already had their year, but the Web curators.
What exactly is a Web curator? Well, nowadays everything is curated – from parties to home furnishings. So why not the Internet? There, curating is about filtering and recommending Web content from the social networks. The mass production of information and content is beginning to overwhelm today’s users. That’s why trustworthy curators are now needed to help reliably separate the wheat from the chaff.
However, there’s also another reason for the hype surrounding curating on the Internet. The advertising industry and big corporations are discovering new ways to utilize the information flow on the Web for their own ends: curated content is supplanting “˜branded content’.
“2011 is the year of curation”
Under this heading, excerpts circulated through the Web this year from an interview (1) with Brian Solis conducted by Berlin blogger Elisabeth Stangl (99 Faces) at the LeWeb Conference on Trends in Social Media in April. Today, “70% of the people on the social web just consume”, says Solis, but he now thinks that tables are turning: “Curation will get that 70%.”
The reason behind this development is the sheer overwhelming amount of texts, images and films making their way day after day through the Internet and the social networks. “From the birth of the planet until 2003, five exabytes of information were created. We now create five exabytes every two days”, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, is quoted as saying (2).
In his book “Curation Nation” the entrepreneur and filmmaker Steven Rosenbaum (Magnify.net) describes the new situation as follows: “”¦ the curation of art or shoes or even women’s lingerie may not be anything new. This trend, from the hallowed halls of museums to banal retail shopping, is still very much about gathering groups of real things in the real world. The place where curation is a new idea is within the bits and bytes on the World Wide Web.”
Rosenbaum points out that “Making is content easy. Finding what matters is hard.” Luckily, we now have a new miracle cure, namely “˜curation’, to help us out!
Steve Rubel and David Armano, innovation researchers for the consulting firm Edelman Digital (4), have also picked “˜Digital Curation’ as the key trend in 2011: “The plethora of content will give rise to digital curators who can separate art from junk.”
It’s all a matter of trust. The days of simply following one’s “˜friends’ and their tips will soon be over. In a survey on behalf of the market research institute StrategyOne, Richard Edelman, who regularly issues so-called “˜Trust Barometers’, showed that at the moment trust in peers is falling, while trust in experts is soaring.
What’s needed, then, are reliable mediators between the producers of content and its consumers. In other words, curators: people who act as a kind of human search engine able to filter information according to relevance and quality from the background noise of the Net.
“Curation will soon be a part of your business and your digital world. Understand it now, join in early, and reap the many benefits of Curation Nation membership” (3)
Just to avoid any misunderstandings: when Rosenbaum, Rubel or Edelman speak of curation, they aren’t talking about what is commonly understood by that term. They are instead appropriating the concept for their own purposes. The description “˜curator’ is so attractive at the moment that these authors and market researchers already see themselves as taking on this role. For example, in the blurb for “Curation Nation”, the publisher claims that Rosenbaum “curates the curators”, and David Armono from Edelman Digital sees it as his job to recognize trends for his company’s clientele – likewise a “˜curatorial activity’! (4)
Curation is however not the invention of market researchers studying social networks. As early as ten years ago, the term was already popular amongst sociologists and trend researchers in the real world. The magic word here is “˜curated consumption’. The Dutch market research platform trendwatching.com (5) devoted one of its monthly trend briefings to the phenomenon in 2004. At that time, they discerned a development in the retail world that is now coming to pass in the social networks: the excess of mass-produced goods and the bewildering number of variations and brands is driving the more demanding consumer into the arms of “˜curators’ – a new breed of customer advisers who pre-select what one buys, wears, reads or drinks. With curated consumption, purchasers are naturally not served by ordinary sales staff. Rather, they rely on well-known restaurant critics, or perhaps rappers who share their music playlists and celebrities enlisted by retail chains as “˜curators’ of their product ranges.
As an example of this trend, here is a link to a video in which the “East End Girl Film maker Shimmy Ahmed” introduces us to her favourite spots in East London: “Find out where she likes to eat, drink, dance, and shop”
The new trend toward exclusivity and selectiveness in the world of merchandise is causing retail stores to look more and more like museums or art galleries. And with the spread of E-commerce, this form of curated consumption continues seamlessly on the Internet. Specialized Internet boutiques provide the customer with discriminating consumption and purchase orientation. An early example from the high-end segment is the Italian firm Corso Como (6), whose flagship store in Milan includes features such as a gallery of contemporary art. And then there’s Anthropologie , a London-based company that saves its customers the trouble of hunting down unusual products that can’t be found in the usual high-street shops.
Aggregate, filter, moderate, present
The original field of activity of a curator includes not only selecting and exhibiting artworks in a certain context, but also preserving and archiving them in collections. But many contemporary curators no longer fulfil by any means all the criteria or requirements of the traditional job profile. And even fewer demands are placed on Web curators. Most limit themselves to the step involving the aggregation of content. Software tools encourage this trend by supplying automated rules or scripts for selecting and filtering content.
In this regard, these tools already occupy an interface or grey area to search engines with adaptive algorithms which for example memorize the user’s areas of interest or preferences. But with the incredible quantities of information coursing through the Web today, even the cleverest algorithms can’t prevent a great deal of noise or trash washing up to the surface.
Some experts have therefore already predicted the end of the search engine, viewing the curation of content as the only alternative (8). Serious curating on the Internet must include at least the following work steps: aggregate (find and collect content), filter (select according to quality criteria), moderate (create a context) and present. Good examples are rare, though!
What makes a good (Web) curator?
The term curator was naturally only adopted because of its positive connotations. It is associated with values such as culture, education and exclusivity – in short, it gives the impression of “˜good taste’. The inflationary appropriation of the concept by promoters of online boutiques or by bloggers for every conceivable product or theme is however devaluing the term the more it proliferates. Trying to fend off this development are not only “˜genuine curators’, but also representatives of the advertising industry. The major agencies for online advertising are confronted with the paradox that they on the one hand can plug into the power and size of the social web and make it profitable for their business clients (“crowd sourcing”), but that there is on the other hand a risk of this web’s unmanageable dimensions then sneaking in again through the back door, so to speak.
Last year, even master blogger Robert Scoble intervened with a complaint: “I keep hearing people throw around the word “˜curation’ at various conferences (…) they usually have no clue about what curation really is.” Scoble, who in the meantime is also referring to himself as a curator, immediately followed up with criteria for good Web curation, albeit not very convincing ones. His suggestions in “The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators” (7) are limited for the most part to technological rather than content-related requirements for bundling various services on a curated website.
Many of these technical requirements are already fulfilled by commercial curation tools. One example is the application “Curata”.
With Curata, various services or feeds from the social networks can be integrated into a microsite. The curator is in this case an advertising agency or the PR department of a company. Content from the users in the social web can be filtered and then integrated and published in a targeted fashion for the company’s own purposes. The result is a microsite with free “curated content” that uses the company’s branding or promotes its products, but that looks more like a blog in a social network than outright advertising.
Example: “Green Data Center News” – a microsite for Verne Global made with Curata.
Bundles for everyone: Everyone is a curator
Today there are a whole host of bundling platforms with tools that allow anyone to create their own curated pages semi-automatically. Supplying curators’ platforms able to link different interactive services together in a bundle has even developed into its own line of business. One example is the portal Curated.by , whose slogan is “curated by everyone”. Or Scoop.it , a host platform for publishing online magazines that promises to help users “leverage curation to increase your visibility”. A list of additional curation tools is available on BUMPzee.
Guides and online help offerings are already growing up around these platforms and applications, promising to help anyone become a successful curator. DIY curating tips are available for instance as the “Lord of Curation Series” at Scoop.it or from Robin Good “What makes a Great Curator”. And a list of additional curation tools is available on BUMPzee.
“The death of the curator”
In an open letter to all those who use the word “˜curate’ in error on the Internet, Lauren Northup (Hermitage Collection) wrote in August: “Stop it. Just stop. (…) The very meaning of the word is starting to change, and that makes me crazy.” (curator, Hermitage Collection)
Since 2009, a much-quoted article from the New Curator Blog (9) titled “The Death of the Curator” has been making the rounds, in which the author laments that, “Suddenly, your art history or archaeology degree isn’t looking so important, your museum post-grad may not be enough and your years of experience don’t mean much in the world of facemuseumtube when your job can be done by a thousand unpaid contributors.” As an indication of this development, the blogger referred to the Guardian’s appeal to its readers to curate an art exhibition in cooperation with the Saatchi Gallery (“Guardian Readers to Curate Art Show”).
The “˜crowd sourcing’ of curatorial decisions demonstrates how developments on the Internet are impacting back on the real world. With increasing frequency, public art and culture institutions are namely also resorting to such methods. And even visitor rankings for artworks are no longer taboo. This is not an example of a deliberate and carefully planned “˜democratization’ of these institutions, but presumably a consequence of the financial crisis, or of ever-scarcer resources. The pressure on established institutions has in the meantime grown so extreme that ingratiating attempts of this sort to popularize art are on the rise.
“There are too many curators”
Today, courses and seminars for curators are available in all of the world’s major cultural hotspots. Even pitchings and curator competitions are being offered. One of the pioneers in this regard amongst the major institutions is the Hayward Gallery, which already held a competition in 2008 to “Curate a Hayward Touring Exhibition”. And curation is also an increasingly attractive career choice for job changers now that curators are being celebrated as stars. At many universities curation has now been made an official degree subject. The first generation of curatorial graduates is entering the job market. It’s only a matter of time before there are more curators than exhibitions.
At the same time, resistance is growing on the arts scene against the burgeoning power of curators (see also: links to online videos in “Faits Divers”). Not least amongst the artists. In a kind of counter-reaction, many are themselves trying their hand at curating (“Everyone is a curator” ;-), which however doesn’t have much effect on reforming the curator system. Conversely, more than a few curators are making the scene as artists. They put on events or shows in which they themselves are the main focus, while the actual artists play more of a subsidiary role. A certain form of conceptual curation, augmented by a suitable theoretical superstructure, spotlights the curatorial idea rather than the artwork, which then merely acts as a demonstration or proof of the thesis put forth. This tendency is also widespread in the curation of films, where there is no long tradition of curation to fall back – unlike in the visual arts, in which the aesthetic mediation of the work and its contextualization in (art) history are still part of the standard mission.
There are parallels here as well between the curators in real life and the Web curators in the virtual world, the minor difference being that the curators on the Internet not only aggregate and present “˜content’, but at the same time appropriate it without being asked.
As far as jobs are concerned, Web curators are sought after everywhere at the moment. The job description of curator can be found in the listings of every larger company and marketing agency. Curation is “the next big social media job of the future” according to Rohit Bhargava, marketing chief of Ogilvy, in his “Manifesto for the Content Curator” (10). Even YouTube recently posted job openings for curators, in stark contradiction to its original business model. YouTube Trends, for example, promises “to aggregate the wisdom of top curators across the web”.
On the film scene, many of those who compile film programmes would prefer to engage with the work itself and place it in its own context and are hence discarding the title of “˜curator’ in favour of the older, more modest description “˜programmer’. In a world where even parties, menus and home decoration are being curated, “˜curator’ is perhaps not the best profession to print on one’s business card.
curated by Reinhard W. Wolf
(Editor and Programmer)
* Reader’s Digest, founded by DeWitt Wallace who had been a curator all his life, spent months at the local library reading all the magazines he could. The proto-type of the first Reader’s Digest included articles that he read and found of interest from the Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Evening Post and even Ladies’ Home Journal. (Wikipedia)
(2) Eric Schmidt: http://www.i-cio.com/features/august-2010/eric-schmidt-exabytes-of-data
(3) Curation Nation: Why the Future of Content is Context and How to win in a world where Consumers are Creators, New York, McGraw Hill
(4) Edelman Digital: 11 Actionable Trends for 2011
(5) Curated Consumption: <http://trendwatching.com/trends/CURATED_CONSUMPTION.htm>
(6) Corso Como online: <http://www.10corsocomo-theshoponline.com/intro.html>
(7) Scoble’s The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators: <http://scobleizer.com/2010/03/27/the-seven-needs-of-real-time-curators/>
(8) Curation is the New Search is the New Curation, Paul Kedrosky in InfectiousGreed <http://paul.kedrosky.com/archives/2011/01/curation_is_the.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+businessinsider+%28Business+Insider%29>
(9) Original source no longer online – successor website: <http://newcurator.tumblr.com>
(10) Manifesto for the Content Curator: http://socialmediatoday.com/index.php?q=SMC/131472
Further links on this theme:
DJ as Curator: http://www.spafax.com/blog/the-dj-as-curator-custom-compilations-take-off
Custommade Curator Sculpture: http://www.diylife.com/2011/07/29/custommade-curator-oreo-cookie-sculpture/
Curated Summer Meal: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/147/curated-tastes-like-summer.html
Curated Shopping: http://www.etsy.com/treasury/
Curated Video: http://ryeberg.com/
Curated (Magazine): http://www.curatedmag.com/news/tag/blu/
“Die neuen Kuratoren” in Süddeutsche Zeitung: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/die-neuen-kuratoren-curation-nation-1.1123715
“The Word “šCurate’ No Longer Belongs to the Museum Crowd” in NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/fashion/04curate.html?_r=1