A curator is not a digital dilettante

There’s been a lot of discussion about online curation recently in the wake of the Curator’s Code and the video below from Percolate. Most of it hasn’t sat well with me. I’m a compulsive consumer and sharer of online media. I think people mostly follow me for the links I share. I probably fit more into the “online curator” category than any other. Why, then, do I consider so much of the discussion about online curation to be self-indulgent silliness?

Marco Arment, the developer of Instapaper, posted a salient critique of the Curator’s Code. Most of the critiques to date have focused on the silliness of promoting squiggly lines for attribution but the fundamental problem runs much deeper. It’s the nonsense notion that finding and sharing information on the “whimsical rabbit hole of discovery” (urgh) is a creative act that warrants attribution.

Marco’s right about this fundamental point. My personal critique of the online curation movement is based on two central concerns and thinking about this has also prompted me to think about whether things should or could be done differently.

My first concern is that being obsessed with “ideas” and “interesting things” encourages superficial engagement with topics. It encourages us to focus on stuff that’s fun, exciting, and almost immediately gone from our minds. Very rarely does it challenge us or encourage deeper engagement with topics. As any actual expert will tell you, the more you know about a subject, the more you realise how nuanced, conditional and dependent on other factors much knowledge is. We also collectively face an increasingly complex set of wicked problems. Exposing people to often overly simplistic and superficial descriptions of topics is not curation; it’s entertainment. That’s a legitimate activity but don’t pretend it’s something that it’s not.

My second concern is that curation is more than just presenting a grab-bag of links based on your personal taste or what you think will attract clicks. Curating tells a story. It involves bringing together several works in a way that may lead to greater appreciation, understanding and insight. Instead of worrying about via or ht (hat-tip) attribution for links we should be worrying about the story that’s told by the links we share, as a gestalt. What do they say about us and what we care about? What do they give to the people who take the trouble to read or watch what we link to?

So what is the story we should be telling through online curation? (though that term still doesn’t sit well with me) I’m not sure. Thinking about this prompted me to consider what broader messages I’ve been trying to convey through the links I share. I think I’ve been trying to say three things:

  • Many issues are related and interconnected;
  • We face huge problems that we have a responsibility to tackle; and
  • The best thing about humans is our capacity to have fun!
  • I’m fairly sure I haven’t succeeded in conveying these ideas to my audience, which I wouldn’t like to pretend is overly large. Even thinking about it has helped me though, because it’s also forced me to consider what I’m not trying to suggest when I link to stuff online.

    Attribution, via squiggly unicode characters or otherwise, should be the least of our concerns. Such egoistic behaviour is beneath us.

    Referring to this sort of activity as curation also dishonours the hard work of actual curators going back centuries. When was the last time you went into a museum and found a pile of unrelated stuff that someone thought was “interesting”? That’s not a curated collection, it’s a garage sale.

    Be honest about what you’re doing – sharing links and having some fun.