In his book Curation Nation, Steven Rosenbaum offers readers interesting insight into the way content is organized and propagated throughout the digital sphere. And « Curation », unlike aggregation, is mainly a manual task that consists of gathering, organizing and sharing content according to value. It seems a key new approach for the future.
(« Smart Curation » is also a sub-chapter of Smart, On the internets. See the chapter: « From Culture to Content » in Smart)
A Review of the book by Heryte T. TEQUAME (Sciences Po Paris)
Before the digital revolution, the term “curation” was essentially used to identify the process by which individuals possessing specialized knowledge in the field of Art History select works to exhibit in a museum or gallery setting. Thus, one could only be considered a true “curator” if prominent actors within the “art world” deemed that he or she has the sufficient degree of expertise to discern genuine masterpieces from ill-conceived artistic manifestations. However, in the past decade, a major lexical shift has occurred. “Curation” is now being used to describe activities that transcend the museum domain. The term encompasses a broader set of activities related to the practice of “filtration” and “selection”. In his 2011 bestseller Curation Nation, writer and filmmaker Steven Rosenbaum explores the transformation of curation by analyzing the role of human insight in the collection and organization of content. According to Rosenbaum, the digital revolution has incited the intensification of content creation, which, in turn, has led to an information overload. Through a variety of examples taken from both the digital and non-digital realm, Rosenbaum attempts to show how automated aggregation is an inefficient approach to content filtration due to its inability to implement qualitative discernment. Machines only look at content’s data components and not its emotional or logical worth. Rosenbaum asserts that, ultimately, only humans know what humans want, and that curation is crucial to content propagation.
In order to better understand the core arguments behind Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation, this paper will attempt to answer the following question: to what extent is human curation an efficient means of gathering and diffusing valuable content? In the first part, we will analyze the different ways in which human curation transcends the limits of computer aggregation, and, in the second part, by examining the issues that could potentially arise during the curatorial process, we will look into the drawbacks of human curation and its ultimate co-dependence on algorithmic content filtration.
“Monsoon. Tsunami. Avalanche. Use whichever weather metaphor you like. The simple fact is that we’re drowning in undifferentiated data”. This quote best exemplifies Rosenbaum’s point-of-view on the current state of communication. According to the author, the rise of social media has led to a rapid democratization of speech. Because humans now have access to one or several digital communication platforms, experiences, ideas and opinions can easily be shared with the world; anyone and everyone’s voice can be heard. One would think that this would be perceived as a positive outcome of the digital revolution. However, the reality of the situation is that this democratization of speech has backfired, provoking an “information overload”. As stated by Rosenbaum, “we’re moving from a world of content scarcity to content abundance”. An overwhelming flood of content is being poured into the global data pool (approximately 5 exabytes of information every two days). An avalanche of information is continuously coming at us and the idea of consuming all this content is unrealistic. Because it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to sift through this mass of content and pinpoint the essential pieces of information that are most tailored to their needs, a variety of tools and techniques have been implemented in order to change the way humans interact with information.
The initial solution to this content avalanche was aggregation, a code-centric machine-powered filtering system that provided web users with their desired content based off of metadata or keywords. The site that epitomizes this automated approach to content filtration is Google. When Google was first founded in 1998, the company’s objective was to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. As Rosenbaum explains, “Google replaced human classification with digital discovery and a ‘black box’ formula that ranked pages based on a complex and changing algorithm”. Thus, Google was able to transcend the limits of human content filtration not only because of the speed at which it is able to scan information, but also because of its word-based selection approach. Yet, when one uses Google’s search engine, it is quite evident that not all of the proposed results are perfectly suited to the initial search inquiry. Oftentimes, one must go through the results individually in order to unearth the content that is most relevant to his or her interests. Now, why is that? Why don’t algorithms suffice? To put it in simple terms, aggregation is not a comprehensive approach to content filtration because it compiles information based of off independent pieces of data and on the interconnectedness of these data elements. As Rosenbaum explains, “computers can’t distinguish between data and ideas […] or between human intellect and aggregated text and links”. Aggregation may provide individuals with the most lexically relevant content, but not with the highest-quality content, and that’s why algorithms just don’t make the cut. In order to cure information overload, humans need to be reintegrated into the filtration process so as to judge content from a qualitative perspective. Thus, when it comes to content, human curation is king.
Why exactly is human curation so important? According to Rosenbaum, in the context of content saturation, curators are crucial because they are responsible for discerning quality information from the “noise”. The author provides his readers with the following definition of a content curator: “someone whose job it is not to create more content, but to make sense of all the content that others are creating. To find the best and most relevant content and bring it forward”. Thus, unlike aggregation, curation is mainly a manual task that consists of gathering, organizing and sharing content according to value. Human curation plays-out in a three-fold process: individual evaluation (analyzing the content based off of pre-established editorial criteria), context relativization (ensuring that the content is relevant to the context in question) and publication (diffusing the content on appropriate information platforms). One could compare curation to a treasure hunt; it’s all about finding those few pieces of valuable and unique content and presenting them to a niche, predetermined audience that is likely to cherish them. But, in this digital age, how exactly does one concretely curate content?
Rosenbaum explains that there are different degrees of human curation. Take Facebook, for example. There are a variety of ways in which Facebook users can curate the content they share with their friends or followers. When one posts a photo, a video or an article to their profile, they are inadvertently curating content. They have sifted through either their personal content database or the World Wide Web in order to locate the elements that are likely to interest their social media audience. The value of the shared content is then evaluated by a series of comments, shares or “likes”, which, in turn, constitutes a second degree of curation because the people informed of these comments, shares or “likes” are introduced to new peer-approved content. While this approach to content curation may be informal and relatively uncalculated, it plays a pivotal role in content filtration and shows that: 1) if shared with the right people at the right time, a simple post has the potential of becoming a trending topic in a matter of minutes, even seconds, and 2) anyone can be a curator.
Curation is no longer a title associated with art world elitism. In this day and age, curation is simply about being an expert on a specific topic or domain. For example, if one is passionate about motorcycles, it is likely that they will have an extensive amount of knowledge on the mechanical aspects of motorcycles, the top motorcycle brands, the best motorcycle dealerships, etc. Thus, one might use this insight to filter the mounds of digital content about motorcycles and disseminate the most valuable pieces of information through their social media networks. This editing process enables other motorcycle aficionados to get direct access to high- quality content without having to spend hours scouring the web. Thus, Rosenbaum explains that individuals are considered content curators based of off their authority, knowledge and authenticity to broadcast information. But the title of “content curator” is not only restricted to individuals. Brands have also started incorporating curatorial practices into their business activities in order to find new ways of connecting with their target audience. As described by Rosenbaum, “curation can give brands a new way to convene a conversation, keep the tone appropriate, and create a safe space for customers to leans and share”. Up until the digital revolution, brands have been able to maintain full control over their image through advertising and customers were just passive recipients of brand messages. But now that the Internet has allowed all individuals to participate to mass communication, customers have been given the tools to shape a brand’s image by sharing their personal experiences through online discussions and reviews. This means that employees are not the only actors involved in a brand’s content creation. The power is now in the customers’ hands. Thus, in order for brands to ensure a strong following, they need to cancel the “noise” and take control over “the conversations that swirl around their space and products”. They need to tell their story in a captivating and transparent way so as build trust with their audience and ensure that the people behind the brand are the ones curating the most valuable content related to their image. Overall, whether it be on an individual or brand level, Rosenbaum considers that human curation is the only way of discerning quality content from the mass of information overflowing the web.
Yet, one may wonder: is human curation alone a sufficient approach to content filtration? Even though Rosenbaum is committed to the idea of humans being the most efficient digital content organization, the democratization of curation has certain weak points that could potentially affect the quality of the content being delivered to niche audiences.
As previously mentioned, anyone and everyone can be a curator as long as they have a certain degree of expertise in a specific domain. The beauty of this is the fact that curation no longer has the elitist connotation it once possessed when the term was exclusively used in the art realm. All individuals are entitled to embrace the role of curator. However, there is one major issue, and that is determining who possesses the legitimate expertise to curate content. Just because one considers himself or herself an expert in a certain domain doesn’t necessarily mean that they are indeed an expert. I could consider myself an expert on red wine after only having drunk one or two glasses throughout my lifetime. The problem with this misconception of my expertise is that, if I suddenly decide to create a Tumblr page about the best red wine brands in France using my very limited knowledge on the subject, I am duping my followers into believing that I am providing them with quality content. Because my followers have very limited means of guaranteeing that I am indeed an expert (especially if I am not a prominent public figure) they run the risk of processing and sharing subpar or erroneous content. In such situations, instead of discerning quality content from the information overload, human curation just adds more “noise” to the mass, making it even more challenging for individuals to pinpoint their desired content. Thus, one may wonder whether human curators themselves should also be curated.
One could assume that relying solely on professional curation is the ideal way of avoiding the potential factual inconsistencies of amateur curation. If qualified individuals can actually make a living out of their curatorial prowess, this might make human curation more valuable, fine-tuned and less subject to error. However, introducing money into the equation might incite curators to promote content based on financial compensation and not on its qualitative worth. Thus, supposed “quality” content ends up being covert sponsored material. Similarly to “false” expertise, monetary incentives have the potential of being strongly detrimental to human curation, increasing the amount of “junk” content being poured into the information pool.
Last but not least, it is important to note that, while Rosenbaum portrays human curation as being the sole means of evaluating the quality of digital content, one must understand that algorithmic aggregation still plays a pivotal role in the curation process. Because there is so much content being produced on an hourly basis, it is impossible for humans to singly-handedly sift through the web’s data mass in order to identify the content they find most relevant to their interests. Algorithms are still necessary because they provide a first step of data filtration that drastically narrows down the scope of content humans have to curate. Without atomized aggregation there would just be too much content for human curators to sort through. Thus, aggregation and human curation are actually two co-dependent approaches to content filtration, the first enabling a data-based organization of content, and the second providing a more quality-based evaluation of content. Human curation is the cherry on top of the aggregation cake.
In conclusion, Curation Nation offers readers interesting insight into the way content is organized and propagated throughout the digital sphere. While Steven Rosenbaum spends the majority of his book exemplifying the ways in which human discernment provides a cure to the information overflow that is currently plaguing the World Wide Web, he does not spend sufficient time delving into the interconnectedness of algorithmic aggregation and human curation. While these approaches may have different means and ends, they each represent a different side of the same content-filtration “coin”. Humans are not replacing algorithms; they are just fine-tuning aggregation results in order to place quality back into the picture. Ultimately, the idea behind Rosenbaum’s “human curation” argument is that the web is becoming a human network and that machines alone are not powerful enough to provide us with the content we need. The shift from “me web” (where humans would interact with the Internet independently) to “we web” (where humans engage in social interaction within the digital sphere) means that humans are becoming increasingly dependent on one another to find what they need, when they need it.
Heryte T. Tequame