Curation and the Questions No One Is Asking

It’s been three months since our last Internet debate about “curation,” so by all means, let’s have another one!

The latest argument began last week after a mysterious tweet seemed to finally produce hard evidence that curators do, in fact, think they are better than everyone else. I’ve never met a “curator” who believes this, and it’s the same straw man argument that is concocted every three months. 

So let’s get this out of the way now: Curation only exists because this is an incredible time for creation. It all starts and ends with a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, or a publisher who creates or funds that work. The rest of us are just looking for something to inspire us, and when we do, we want to share it with others. And in the end, we all want to find ways to support the financing of creators’ work.  

Yet every three months we get angry about the word “curation”—Is it “twee”? Who do these people think they are? Why don’t they get real jobs? Why are we so angry at people who are out there doing this for free?—but once again, we fail to ask any of the most pressing questions about curation in the Twitter and Facebook era.

Here are those questions, in order: 

1. Is curation actually valuable, and do we have proof that it is, or is not? 

A few successful curators, as I would define them, on Twitter include: Paul Kedrosky (@pkedrosky, 213,000+ followers), Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa, 30,000+ followers), Matthew Keys (@producermatthew, 11,000+ followers), Maria Popova (@brainpicker, 180,000+ followers), Heidi Moore (@moorehn, 18,000+ followers), Danyel Smith (@danamo, 20,000+ followers), Kevin Smokler (@weegee, 65,000 followers), and Jodi Ettenberg (a contributing editor for Longreads and Travelreads, whose @legalnomads has 14,000 followers). 

You can argue about their respective tastes and whether you’re into what they’re slinging, but based on their follower counts, it’s tough to argue that what they do isn’t valuable to their audiences. When they link to a story, in most cases publishers will see a bump in new visitors. If you’re a publisher, you might just see “Twitter.com” in your Google Analytics referrals, but these are actual people, and their recommendations mean something to their followers. 

To break it down further: For many curators, their work is valuable because their followers trust them to make objective, worthwhile recommendations, and they do so consistently. They’re valuable because they offer a consistent, reliable service.  

Consistency is the defining trait that seems to separate “professional” curation and linkblogging from the occasional “oh hey look at this.” The web is a customer-service medium, and curation is just one of those services. 

It doesn’t matter whether you believe the act of curation requires no more talent than managing the Employee Picks shelf at Barnes & Noble, or working the graveyard shift at your college radio station. People appreciate it if you save them a little time and point them to interesting work that might not show up in a “most popular” algorithm. 

2. Does curation actually have a viable business model? And should it?

The much-maligned word “curation” exists because there is a fundamental difference between it and its web ancestors (a.k.a. “aggregating,” “blogging” and “linkblogging”): Curation is no longer attached primarily to a website, whereupon the reader is served with banner ads. Now, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, most successful curators simply link to the original publisher’s source URL and skip their own websites to monetize first. This is actually better for the users and better for the publishers, because it can send more referral traffic than the old centralized model. 

Old-tyme curators used to monetize by permalinking their outbound links on a blog, and then dropping in a comments section and a little bit of commentary. When they sold advertising, they justified the existence of their permalinked links by talking about the “added value” that their comments section brought to the conversation. This wasn’t great for publishers when it came to Google search results, because if you searched an original publisher’s headline, you’d see not just the original work, but the links to the work from other aggregators. This is where the Huffington Post dominated. 

You can argue about whether that was a ridiculous model, but it doesn’t matter, because this model is now disintegrating. Kottke, Metafilter and Hacker News are some of the last of that breed of linkblogger.

Once Twitter and Facebook showed up, curation took on a new form, it democratized it, and it distilled what “curation,” “linkblogging” and “aggregating” really is. Again, curation is a service, so it probably should be monetized as a service. 

Maria Popova’s business model is not built on banner advertising on her website—it comes from donations, a day job, and she probably makes some money from Amazon affiliate referrals. (For the record: Longreads relies on brand sponsorships, paid memberships, and a small amount of Amazon affiliate money for its revenue. We also sell a Best of 2011 ebook, of which the majority of revenue will go to the writers featured.)

Both of these curation models are nice, because they don’t over-incentivize pageviews and display advertising impressions. Day jobs are fine, too. The quest for pageviews can be the death of any good curator, because the more your livelihood is connected to “visits” to your “website,” the less freedom you will have to link to people whose work does not give you revenue in return. This also lends credibility and objectivity to your recommendations, because the curator is not being paid to recommend something. 

The backstory here is that curators I’ve spoken to (Longreads included) have been working to build a model that rights the old wrongs that came out of the Huffington Post model, which was to simply sell the same banner ads that the original publishers were selling. This inevitably led to a conflict. 

Even the Huffington Post has moved away from this model, investing in original reporting and scoring a Pulitzer Prize out of the deal. (Another key lesson: This year’s curators may be next year’s original publishers.)

In the meantime, the new breed of curator should be cutting away the excess fat and distilling the work to that of a lean service. That should be a good thing for original publishers, because they are less likely to be buried under permalinks of synthesized digests of their work, presented under the guise of “added value.” 

The final question is whether a curator *should* have a viable business model. If we want it to be organized and consistent, and if we don’t want it to slide back into the old, less efficient model, then the answer is yes. 

3. Who is a curator? 

Everyone is a curator. Most creators are also curators. I don’t know many people for whom “curation” is a full-time job. (If you look at the above list, you’ll notice most of them are editors or writers employed by media companies.) A lot of people are trying to dedicate as much time as possible for it, because, like anything, it’s a timesuck if you choose to take it seriously.

But this brings us back to the straw man argument, which claimed that “curators” suddenly think they’re better than “creators.” This is flawed because it pretends that “curators” are always different people. The people I know who “curate” are also writers, editors, bloggers and publishers. A few make a small amount of money “curating,” which allows them to have a little more pocket money, which maybe will help them continue writing. 

There is no “us vs. them.” There’s only “we.” So we should all start working harder to have some constructive conversations about how we improve the model. 

I’m doing a bit of selective editing here, but New York Times developer and freelance writer Matt Langer quietly acknowledged last week that “we” all could be doing more: “Yes I’ll grant that we’re being #olds if we’re just going to sit around yelling at the internet to get off our lawn instead of thinking up and building and executing on whatever that solution is that’s going to help sustain this thing that we love and yes, we should do that.” 

So let’s do that.

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