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Curator? Really?

I am a bit of a stickler for words. Not like some people, who are super serious about it, but I get very annoyed when people throw words around carelessly. Innovation is a good one and I get in arguments every other day about whether “intent” in relation to web economics and marketing means what people mean it to mean (most of the time it doesn’t). The newest one is curation. I’m a bit less sure about this, but I have a feeling that all these people throwing it around are using it incorrectly. I’m not sure what the word should be, as most of the time they are describing the act of collecting and publishing content produced by others, though I really like this take from Tomorrow Museum (from March, 2010):

A social media curator is a essentially a selector. The practice is nothing more than human hand editing in the model of Mahalo. By this account, if you can pick out clothes for yourself in the morning, you can “curate.” Meanwhile, what Poynter and Youtube are looking for might better be described as “context analyst,” or what used to be known as a semiotician.

So why are these companies hiring curators in name only, rather than requesting real curatorial duties? If all you want is someone to list what is good and what is not good, you might as well call the job “office Nick Hornby.” Not to mention, identifying trends, context, and environment is something a writer should always be doing.

I think editor is right, but then an editor often is a person responsible for compiling content produced by people within an organization (or hired by that organization). There’s something a bit different going on here, and again, I don’t know what to call it, but I’m pretty sure curation isn’t it. But maybe it is?

January 18, 2011


  • Ana Andjelic says:

    hm, doesn’t technology do a bulk of curation these days?

  • Nick says:

    Hmm. I’m an editor. And I refuse to let my job description be bastardized by every yahoo with a Tumblog who was a curator up until now. (Please excuse the hyperbole.)

    Take Contagious, a finely edited publication, if I can say so myself–the raw materials aren’t just selected and paginated. They’re changed to create an aesthetic and a unified agenda, ideas are refined, elements are designed, etc. There’s a point, other than ‘this exists, here it is’.

    I’m firmly in the ‘words have meaning’ camp, as you know, and I think in this case ‘curator’ was used to gussy up the clunky ‘selector’ or ‘retransmitter’ or ‘sharer’ whatever compact way you might describe the function of someone who shines a light on interesting things.

    That Tomorrow Museum essay is moderately interesting; I think the underlying difficulty with naming roles in this manner has something to do with the emerging visual strength of the web. People think images, art–let’s use a visual term.

  • Andy Weissman says:

    There are two issues here. The first is that with enough usage, most terms of art start to lose their crisp meaning.

    Secondly, sometimes we use words to describe problems we are trying to solve, where our target users would never think that same way. For example, users don’t sit around and say, “gosh I wish someone would curate some content for me.” Or, “wow I need some innovation on location services.”

    I prefer to drill down harder into the user’s POV. btw I think stumbleupon in particular does this well.

    somewhat of a tangent, but this is what your words above made me think about

  • Marc Snyder says:

    I just had a give-and-take on that exact subject with a bunch of colleagues/friends and one of them sent me this link that I think you’ll like: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/fashion/04curate.html


  • Adam says:

    A curator is employed to fill a space with meaning. A curator has his/her own agenda. A curator brings his/her agenda to the space. The more the space itself has an agenda, the less the curator is a curator.

    A curator arranges objects in such a fashion as to tease out contextual meanings that would not be apparent had these particular objects not been so arranged. The agenda is revealed by placing objects in relation and in conversation with a viewer.

    There will never be a brand curator. The more the sponsor of the space has an agenda, the more that space has an agenda, the less the curator is a curator. If there is a ‘brand’ in curation, it is the curator and his/her agenda.

    Following online media, questions arise as to what constitutes the proper boundary of a ‘space’.

  • Joseph Rueter says:

    I’ve been wondering along the same lines for some time now. I am not sure what to call the person who performs the acts of curation. Currently I am tinkering with curation possibly being more about a behavior more than it is about a title.

    Often our clients at CurationStation.com have other titles all together but they are expert in a certain space and are finding, selecting and bringing context to (often with placement and comments) content in that space that serves some kind of audience or business aim.

    Does it help to separate the acts of a curator from the title?

  • Rye says:

    Maybe it would be fun to look into word evolution, how context changes as a word translates from language to language or how the meaning takes on new life over time.

    Is it more annoying for a word to take on a new meaning, or a new variation of a meaning, or for something new to be created and added to the dictionary? Every year it seems like the world gets a little dumber when something like truthiness is voted the word of the year, right? http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/06words.htm

    So is curate the right word? Maybe so. It is easily understood in context most of the time, and let’s face it… it could be a lot worse.

  • Ryan Price says:

    I agree that Innovation is a highly misused word. Curation is starting to get there.

    I think the folks over at Tummelvision TV have had some great talks about this. I want to say the guest they had on at the time was Steve Rosenbaum. This was one of the better episodes they’ve recorded, that really struck home with me.

    Kevin Marks, Heather Gold, Deb Schultz, all giving some awesome commentary.

  • Ric says:

    In the last year, I’ve been photographing for the Museum of Arts & Design. In the museum world the curator is someone not just selecting but also providing context as well as making a statement to be presented by the organization to the audience. That, I think, is the key.

    Your description of editing seems entirely accurate in that it is the informed selection of material from withIN a group to be put forth outside the group.

    On the surface, I’d say that the context is important in terms of whether ‘curation’ is appropriate. But my guess is that is yet another example of ‘title’ glamorization, or an attempt to make us all feel better about ourselves. I.E., the “garbage man” is now a “sanitation engineer” etc.

  • Carol L. Weinfeld says:

    The problem is not with semantics, but that everyone is a curator. The constant curation of links, data, articles, videos and blog posts sent through social media channels weakens the editorial dimension of curating. One could change curation to collection.


  • John Lane says:

    Good discussion. As someone who’s been using the term “curator” a lot lately, maybe I’m contributing to the problem… if it really is a problem. But the way I see it, curating is a term perfectly suited for a growing part of marketing today. And it is made even more apt when you consider it against another word: aggregating.

    Aggregating, to me, is the rudimentary collection of digital objects for a purpose. (Substitute “social” for “digital” if you want to, but I think that’s too narrow.) There’s not a lot of thought put into aggregation, but it’s one way to build some context around your original content.

    Curating takes considerable more care. It needs the eyes of a subject matter expert, but can bring much more context to content than simply aggregating it. A curator collects, organizes, and adds a layer of meaning to relevant content. They create a more meaningful story out of original and “found” content, and they share that new story with the world (or with a specific target audience for marketing purposes).

    By way of example, think about this in terms of bookmarking a site in your browser versus using Delicious.

    A browser bookmark saves a URL and, if you’re lucky, you can add some tags. It’s essentially content that only has context in your own mind. (This is aggregating.)

    Delicious has the handy “notes” feature that allows you to use a pull quote from the post you’re bookmarking or, even better, for the bookmarker to add their own take on the content of the post before anyone else reads it. You can also syndicate those bookmarks from delicious by tag to live along side your original content. (This is curating.)

    As Adam said: a curator is filling a space with meaning. Whether that meaning is about an artist’s purpose in a gallery show or about why video is the right tool for selling widgets isn’t important.

    Thanks for starting the discussion.


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