The Case For Curation

From Randy Murray:

There are times when our use of language shifts and the meaning of words is altered. I typically don’t fight against it. But this current hijacking of the word “curation” to mean “a list of things on other web sites that I link to” is a poor word choice. […]

A web site or a blog with links pointing to other web sites or blogs is not being curated. Such things are lists. There may be commentary, but by the very nature of the web, the person assembling the links does not have primary responsibility to care for the linked things. He or she has no control over them. They are not preserved and maintained by the one who links to them.

It’s the wrong term. […]

There’s another, better term that is more accurate, a better fit. It doesn’t sound as highfalutin’, though.

It’s called “reporting.” All of these sites are doing journalism. It’s news, not a museum.

Note: I love semantic debates. I find I often learn more from them than I do when I attempt to tackle an entirely new subject. If semantics aren’t for you, I’d suggest you sit this one out.

Unlike Randy, I believe that the sharing of links or text as well as the embedding of pictures, audio or video, when presented without any additional context is a form of curation. And in the unlikely event that curation is the wrong term1, I’m confident that reporting is as well.

Every day, I read and take things in. Every day, I’m inspired, moved, angered, enlightened by the words of others. Every day, I fall in love with a specific turn of phrase and since I have the memory of a goldfish, store them for myself while sharing them with others. I offer these up with no context, hoping that others see them and draw their own conclusions. That they decide to dig deeper and visit the source content. I want the words speak for themselves and that is something apart from reporting, at least in its most popular form.

If this isn’t doesn’t have a name, it needs one. Although I think it already has a fairly good one in digital curation.

In our discussion on his site, Randy made it clear that he believes that:

Caring about things and sharing them isn’t curation. It’s the caring FOR things that makes it curation.

I certainly care about the things I share, but I also care for them to the extent that I can. I make sure that the quotes are copied down and saved on the site just in case an image, audio or video embed breaks. I back these posts up to ensure they live on in case Tumblr goes down. I may not possess the original source material, but my referenced versions are certainly cared for.

As for the act of sharing, this is a vital role of the curator. According to Wikipedia:

Curator responsibilities: In smaller organizations, a curator may have sole responsibility for the acquisition and care of objects. The curator will make decisions regarding what objects to collect, oversee their care and documentation, conduct research based on the collection, provide proper packaging of art for transport, and share that research with the public and scholarly community through exhibitions and publications.

That last bit is an important one, or at least it is to me. Curating in private is all well and good, but curating in public is where I truly believe the work becomes important.

Even if Randy is right, and what many of us are doing isn’t true curation, it certainly isn’t reporting and it isn’t editorializing as Stephen M. Hackett suggests. There is no context and no opinion being added (other than the implicit opinion that some thing was worth sharing). Perhaps the correct term is less lofty. Something along the lines of referencing, amplifying or storing, but curation (even if it is not being used literally) feels right. It’s a term we claim because there is nothing better to describe what we are aspiring to achieve.

As Shadoe Huard so aptly put it in his own response to Randy:

I don’t work for a museum but I certainly feel like the above precisely describes what I do here everyday. Last time I checked, “reporting” wasn’t the exclusive domain of people with journalism degrees anymore, so I don’t see why only curators should be allowed to curate.

We’ve seen so many of the boundaries and beliefs of journalism shift over the past few years, why not curation? And even if it started out as an incorrect use, the use has become so common that the literal side of this whole argument might already be moot. As Patrick Rhone pointed out on Twitter:

While I agree, I don’t want it to go unnoticed that words often change through misuse from an etymology perspective.

Perhaps, the definition has expanded or maybe we’ve misused the word to the point where it is now ours2. If not, let’s keep the debate going and come up with the right name already, because I would love to know what the hell it is I’m doing every day


  1. read: I’m probably wrong.  

  2. I certainly hope so, as especially when you consider how fond I’ve grown of my 4 C’s of Blogging post…  

7 Responses to The Case For Curation

  1. Thanks for carrying the discussion further.

    Here’s some additional thoughts on the subject:

    I think that this is a case where many have used curation as a metaphor for what they’re doing in their online publishing. “What I’m doing in selecting things and communing on them is like what a curator does in a museum or library.” That’s a perfect way of talking about a subject.

    But when you move from metaphor to saying, “What I’m doing IS curation,” then you’ve gone too far. You’ve leaped from metaphor to a direct claim.

    It’s not curation. 

    What many people are doing online, like Patrick Rhone does at MinimalMac, is a great and artistic thing. There’s no need to gild the lilly. People that find interesting things, comment on them, and present them to the world are doing, for the most part, a great service. 

    Curation sounds intellectual and important. It is. It’s just not what these sites are doing.

    What are they doing then? They’re publishing.

    Let’s say I do the exact same thing, but I print it out on paper and distribute it through the mail or stores. I look for interesting things, comment on them, and publish it. That’s a well understood activity. We call it journalism and publishing. How is doing the same thing online any different?

    We don’t call the publishers of People magazine curators. They’re journalists and publishers. And so are you.

    Embrace it. You’re not creating an archive, you’re publishing.  That’s amazing, when you think about it. You are publishing.

    Who would have thought it possible. There’s no need to use an unclear or fancy sounding term. 

    • Isn’t publishing too broad a word. At this point, whatever this shift is, it’s prevalent enough that it’s probably its own subsect.

      There is no doubt I’m publishing. But when I published the words above, I was blogging or editorializing and when I hit the button here, I’ll be commenting. To a certain extent, publishing feels more like a way to get around not finding the right word yet than it is landing on the right one.I did actually take your advice and look up what someone would call it if they printed it out on paper. The most common term seems to be compile. All of the quotes books are “Compiled by”.As for the decision to go with curate. I don’t think most people are using it because it sounds lofty, I could easily make an argument that reporting would be just as lofty (if not more) a label for this type of publishing. I for one was never trying to make it sound more important, I was just simply calling it what I thought it was. 

      • Publishing is a broad term. Let’s say you ask someone in change of a periodical “What do you do?” They’ll probably say, “I publish a magazine.” You might then ask them what kind. There are technical and scientific journals, news, entertainment, and every imaginable kind. Most of them have web sites, too.

        The same conversation could be had about a web site. If asked, you’d say, “I publish a web site.” When asked what kind, you could provide more detail.  

        There’s not a single name, a single word, for every type of publishing. My own site is somewhat like a newspaper column and I approach it like a columnist. What we’re all doing is writing and publishing. Commenting is publishing. Picking out photos, laying out the page is publishing. 

        I may have to take these responses and publish a followup myself!

        • There’s little doubt that the term publishing works, I’m just wondering if this particular subsect now needs a more specific name. When you add in the explosion of things like Tumblr and Pintrest, we are only going to be seeing more, not less of this.

          There may not be a name for every type, but there are certainly titles for the common ones. Like it, dislike it, this shift towards sharing the words of others is only going to continue to grow as that sharing becomes easier. Besides, having the right name for something certainly does more to avoid the wrong ones getting used than a blanket term can.

  2. So I am not sure on where I stand when it comes to saying ‘curation’. I agree with most of your points Michael. (Nice boys from NY generally agree ya know). Because I feel I am curating when I share. So the act itself is me filtering and deciding what I feel others will like. But I am clueless who reads or saves it. Do they really like it or find value? For many topics there are a ton of options and view points subjective and objective that if I googled I couldn’t review them all to find ‘the best’ or ‘the best fit’.

    So if I find say Rome during Caesar fascinating and I find content I like and I share with you…am I curating or just sharing? Did I actually look over the 10,000 sources and pick the best one…or found one and liked it and sent it? Is discovery the same as curation?

    Can bacon really be round like up in Canada? The world will never agree.

    The issue I have is how much stuff I have saved thinking it is curated for future reference. But really it is really called Accumulation. My Fire Fox Read It Later Addon for not having to bookmark webpages now has 27 pages of links. My bookmarks toolbar is a mess. I have no idea what I have bookmarked. My previous email addy I use for all News, Brand, Causes, and non-personal communication is a mess. I mass delete 99 out of a 100 emails. Much of this was sent to me by others. Much found by me.

    It really is overwhelming.

    • I would imagine to some extent that would hold true for even the truest form of curator. You’re not always sure who or how that work will be used. 

      It seems, that part of this is actually about it being content rather than an object that truly needs caring for. Not so much the caliber of things you choose to collect. I’m over simplifying, but this whole conversation could probably use a bit of that :)

      It’s easy to lose control of what you’re capturing. It’s why I’ve never been excited by traditional bookmarking. I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t play nice with me. I can always go back into Instapaper or Google Reader to search, so truly losing the few things that never make it through either of those filters is just fine by me. 

      Part of what I like about my approaching using Tumblr is that I’m able to set their random post feature as my default home page. This way, I’m randomly accessing my archive every single time I open up my browser. Gives me a tangible benefit beyond reference. I never quite know which quote is going to pop up and it’s amazing how often its the right piece of advice at the right time.

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