Hipsters, Curation, and The River Of Crap

I’m seeing a lot of hate for “curation” these days; I suppose that backlash is inevitable to some extent. The concept of adding value by selecting and organizing related works is kind of fuzzy to begin with, even though it has precedent. As tools proliferate and the difficulty of basic curation tasks goes down, though, we encounter the classic self-aggrandizing folks who classify their OCD retweeting or Mashable links as “curation,” because aren’t they selecting and organizing things by deciding what to RT?


The challenge is that a lot of what people do casually as part of their information diet is legitimate curation, in the same way that people who pick songs for poker night’s playlist are DJing. Some of those curators-by-technicality seem to regard their retweets and reblogs and pins and so on as acts of profound importance; recent efforts like the Curator’s Code seem to focus on crediting the people who post a link more than those who create the original works.

That, I’m happy to admit, seems a little backwards. For every carefully tended digital archive like Paleofuture, there are hundreds of minimally-maintained linkblogs, softcore Tumblrs, and machine-gun retweet-please-follow-me accounts. The worst of them are simple spam; the mediocre are an annoyance unless you’re a topical obsessive; but when you find someone willing to put the time and energy into crafting a genuine narrative context for their links? Well, that’s magic.

When there was less stuff out there, simple aggregation was a fine service. Simply collecting all of the stuff out there on a given topic was useful in and of itself, and the act of “finding something cool” or “gathering up all the articles about X” was a genuine service. Today? Algorithmic filters are barely keeping up with the deluge of fresh content. YouTube alone adds 48 hours of new video every minute, and Sturgeon’s Law is choking us all.

Aggregation has failed as a solution, though it’s still useful as a starting point. Genuine curation – the stuff that rises above the crowd – requires the curator to provide a unique narrative, a context for the raw content. Which brings us a bit closer to the paradoxical heart of the matter: there’s too damn much stuff on the Internet, but good curation is itself an act of creative addition. That kind of curation doesn’t need special linkback hat-tipping markup syntax; there’s value in the links, but the curated work is worth linking to on its own merits.

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