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The Curation Debate

All week I’ve been meaning to weigh in on the curation debate (David Carr, Matt Langer, Marco Arment, Matthew Ingram), but I’ve been busy and Percolate released its own take on the subject in the form of a video with some of our favorite web curators.

Okay, let me start at the top: Semantics. Matt Langer rightly points out the word curation is not being used correctly:

First, let’s just get clear on the terminology here: “Curation” is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history; the business in which we’re all engaged when we’re tossing links around on the internet is simple “sharing.” And some of us are very good at that! (At least if we accept “very good” to mean “has a large audience.”)

Early last year I agreed. But then I realized how boring and unproductive most semantic arguments were. Or as Maria Popova said last June:

Like any appropriated buzzword, the term “curation” has become nearly vacant of meaning. But, until we come up with a better one, it remains the semantic placeholder that best captures the central paradigm of Twitter as a conduit of discovery and direction for what is meaningful, interesting and relevant in the world.

I loved the idea of a semantic placeholder then, and I still do. If you’re going to wade into the semantic debate you need a better answer and editor isn’t it. For better or worse we are using curator to mean something different than it used to mean and, at least for now, that seems fine. As long as we all know what we’re talking about (the selection of internet things) then the word seems okay, let’s not hide behind the definition.

And before I continue, one more thing: For what it’s worth I define curation as people choosing things and aggregation as computers choosing things.

Great. Now back to the more important stuff. A lot of this conversation was kicked off by the Curator’s Code, which aims to encourage people to share the source of their information with some special symbols. Lots of folks, including Marco from Instapaper jumped on the idea as stupid and unsustainable and maybe it is. I think everyone involved would agree it’s not the perfect solution to the problem, but I do think it opened up an important conversation (I wasn’t involved, but I know the folks who are). How we credit one another on the web is an issue we’ve been working on forever and, as a few of the blog posts on the topic point out, the good news is that the hyperlink is the most efficient:

And we already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink. Plenty of people don’t use the hyperlink as much as they should (including mainstream media sources such as the New York Times, although Executive Editor Jill Abramson said at SXSW that this is going to change) while others misuse and abuse them. But used properly, they serve the purpose of providing credit quite well. How to use them properly, of course — especially for journalistic purposes — is another whole can of worms, as Felix Salmon of Reuters and others have noted. And when it comes to curation and aggregation, it seems as though curation is what people call it when they like it, and aggregation is what they call it when they don’t.

But it’s not quite good enough, and this is where I start to take issue with a few different things a few different people said. What I just did there is use a hyperlink to credit something I didn’t write. Except you probably didn’t mouse over the hyperlink and because it was in there I didn’t need to write that Matthew Ingram from GigaOm was responsible for those sentences. While I think it’s important to credit sources of information, I think the bigger thing to think about is how we’re crediting the original sources of content.

Which is why I took the most issue with Marco’s stance. Not because I disagreed with him (“The proper place for ethics and codes is in ensuring that a reasonable number of people go to the source instead of just reading your rehash.”), but because Instapaper represents one of the current dangers in lack of credit. While it doesn’t relate exactly to the question the Curator’s Code is addressing, it is part of the broader conversation we should be having: Who is getting credit when you consume a great piece of content?

After a long argument with Thierry Blancpain on Twitter I finally came to the question which seems to sit at the heart of the matter to me: Who gets credit when you read something awesome in Instapaper? Does it go to the publisher of the content or does it go to Instapaper. I know for myself (and the informal poll of friends I asked the question to), the answer is the latter. I don’t know the source of most of the content I consume in Instapaper. Sure I put it there when I hit the button, but when I consume it the source is entirely stripped away. I was talking to the publisher of a major magazine this week about the issue and the question I asked is, “if you’re losing the advertising and the branding, is there any purpose to letting your content live there?”

This isn’t to point the finger solely at Instapaper, I think this is true of almost all the platforms on the web. If all the incentive is towards sharing and all the credit goes to sharers, what will happen to creation? (I don’t really think it will go away, but I do think it creates a dangerous precedent.) One of the things I think is great about the Longform iPad app is that it connects me with the publishers of content. One day when they offer subscriptions (which I assume they will) I’d happily pay to keep getting my 3,000 word Grantland stories as I now know the true value (and I never forget it, because the publisher is always right next to the content). (Admittedly, the curators on the app pose a more complicated issue.)

I think part of it is that publishers are going to have to start carrying more branding in the stories. I’m not sure what this means, but if you’re reading something from The Atlantic, say, maybe they remind you throughout that this is from The Atlantic. It’s not ideal, but again, I think if publishers aren’t getting advertising revenue or branding credit with their stories there is no reason for them to support their travels around the web. I also think metadata comes into play, and while I don’t know what the best answer is quite yet, I think it’s important to start encouraging the display of more information about original sources on stories (again, not sure what that looks like, but I’ve been turning it over in my head).

This whole issue is obviously something I’m thinking a lot about at Percolate. I believe brands should be the best behaved of the bunch. I also believe brands have a responsibility to be both curators and creators: To increase the pool of original quality content on the web. No one is to blame for all this stuff, but we are all responsible to make sure that it’s solved before it’s too late.

March 18, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Comments

  • Barbara says:

    My 2 cents: Is this really that different from the reference rules in academic writing? Source/date/page on quotes, source/date on paraphrased references and a more detailed bibliography on anything that’s been referenced. The style rules themselves may be archaic, but a name (and date?) attached to a hyperlink in the body and a full reference at the end of the post would seem to be a simple way to give credit where it’s due. Policing that on the web may indeed be more difficult than in traditional publishing, but if legitimate sources set the precedent, perhaps it will eventually become common practice. I know this is the teacher in me, but in my mind, use without clear attribution is plagiarism.

  • chuck says:

    You brink up some interesting point Noah. I believe a curator is someone who puts things together and either expands the context or creates an entirely new one. Most of what passes for “curation” is simply sharing or at worst stealing credit from the original source. Publishers have their work cut out for them to create a new model before many of them crash and burn.

  • This Week In Brand Strategy & Marketing @PSFK says:

    [...] The Curation Debate [...]

  • YM | Pearltrees says:

    [...] Great. Now back to the more important stuff. A lot of this conversation was kicked off by the Curator’s Code , which aims to encourage people to share the source of their information with some special symbols. The Curation Debate | Noah Brier dot Com [...]

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