“The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the rolling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways, the hope that individuals might feel invited by the gravitational pull of a broad and open commons to ‘rip, mix, and burn’ — to curate.”
—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” Harpers (May 2007)
Oh, curation. What was once the dusty practice of elites at cultural heritage institutions is now something Robert Scoble is apparently an expert in. Who says there are no jobs for art school students? Poynter is hiring!
Poynter is seeking a Writer/Curator for its Sense-Making Project, an ongoing examination of the universe of information and its impact on democracy. We are looking at how facts and information are created, used and transformed. Our goal is to influence the new structures that are emerging, equip citizens with the skills they need to navigate civic life and assist in the development of a new infrastructure to support those doing journalism.
The writer/curator would play a critical role in allowing the public to interact with the project, its findings and its research.
This person must be:
* Immersed in multiple forms of media
* Conversant in traditional journalism values
* Able to articulate applications of those values in new settings
* A published author of short- and medium-length writing, in blog style and other styles
* Capable of determining the best sources of information on a wide range of topics
* Skilled in identifying those with influence, and able to evaluate and describe that influence
Meanwhile, YouTube is also in need of a Culture and Trends Curator, requesting a “savvy, dedicated writer who enjoys discovering news events and trends as they develop on YouTube – and can relay what those trends say about how the Internet is changing society.”
I curated this mess of printouts from AAAARG at my feet. I curate my breakfast on Twitter. I curate my way to work and curate my transfer to another line on the T. I even curate my drawer of undergarments. Yes, really…it takes some serious curating:
When did curate stop meaning, as the OED says, “to look after and preserve” and start describing the retweeting of bit.ly links and SEO optimization? The “curation economy” isn’t at Basel, it is happening in office meetings around the country just getting clued in about Twitter and the importance of setting up Facebook fan pages. Socialmediatoday.com instructs readers on “Curating, not moderating, the flow of content and participation” and provides a “Manifesto For The Content Curator.”
If life weren’t hard enough for art students looking for work, a Monster.com search for those in need of curating skills is likely to request proven track records in monetizing web traffic and managing follower partnerships, not to mention assisting with internal knowledge management systems. Software company Intuit calls their copywriters “Answer Curators” and undisclosed company in San Francisco needs a part-time experienced curator to “interact with other social media and blogger communities.”
I have yet to find a new media appropriation of the word “curator” that couldn’t just as well describe that oh so obsolete occupation: “editor,” (as I previously explained in the Tomorrow Museum podcast.) Understandably, the screen presents challenges very different from the page. It is reasonable to use a different term to describe the new skills needed. But if anything it is the “curator” job requirements that seem antiquated.
A social media curator is a essentially a selector. The practice is nothing more than human hand editing in the model of Mahalo. By this account, if you can pick out clothes for yourself in the morning, you can “curate.” Meanwhile, what Poynter and Youtube are looking for might better be described as “context analyst,” or what used to be known as a semiotician.
So why are these companies hiring curators in name only, rather than requesting real curatorial duties? If all you want is someone to list what is good and what is not good, you might as well call the job “office Nick Hornby.” Not to mention, identifying trends, context, and environment is something a writer should always be doing.
Contrast “curate” with a very good word for online media: content. Content can be video, image, comic, text, or game. It doesn’t signal anything or favor one form over another. It can be whatever comes next, the media we have yet to imagine.
What I think these media companies are trying to get at, but having trouble articulating is that the web is interdisciplinary. To understand it, you need a broad comprehension of the relationships between different tools and means to communicate. Nothing in these “curator” job descriptions calls for this talent. Interestingly, these digital curator jobs listed don’t even emphasize acquisition or sequencing.
As blogger New Curator writes, “When I asked what the most important function of curators was, we saw how complex and varied the job was and not a single person said ’selecting.’” Pointing to Nina K. Simon’s new book, “The Participatory Museum” he explains the role is deeper than that, requiring someone to be a “facilitator, designer and collaborator.”
So what should they be hiring? Well, start by thinking about the etymological roots of “curate” — “to take care of.” Information surplus creates different challenges in preservation and archival record keeping. There are “digital ethnographers,” slightly fewer “cyborg anthropologists,” but media is most in need of digital historians like Jason Scott providing historical context. Someone who can determine the “and this” from the “don’t forget” in fickle Internet memes.
Also implied by the word curator is an intuitive sense of pattern recognition and glyphs. More visual than a mere editor, the Internet requires a sense of the relationships between words, images, space, and shapes. The reason we call web content “content” is because every kind of it — be it text or game or photograph — communicates differently on the net. Online, art is no longer just an image, it becomes a collage that you made.
I used to know someone who worked as a sound designer and I was constantly fascinated when he would do something like rub his hand across his collar and say “that’s a character moving in a space suit.” The media application of this is writing text and knowing exactly how to visually represent it. This is more than just photo editing, it is multi-platform mediamaking.
Quick example: say you were blogging a review of the videogame Heavy Rain. The standard way to illustrate the post is with a sequence of screengrabs:
The curatorial approach, which we are swiftly moving toward, might be illustrated like this:
Heavy Rain screengrab and Lesley Vance painting. It doesn’t have to be that painting, just any visual representation that emphasizes the aspects of the former.
Like remix culture, having a collage mind is essential in making something standout on the web. What Youtube and others should be hiring is a “media synesthete,” someone who communicates in text, as well as forms, sounds, and shapes. The iPad, if anything, could kickstart mainstream demand for this skill. “Digital curation” may soon require a vocabulary of images and multimodality. For really great examples of this kind of media synthesia, take a look at MSTRMND, Pictory, Triple Canopy, specifically John Powers’ essay and also his blog Star Wars Modern. Also, Things Magazine is what you should be reading for insight on “curation.”
On a more personal note, I created The Tomorrow Museum almost exactly two years ago (here’s my first post.) The name was a pun on the then emerging buzzword: “curation.” I wanted to play with the idea of the blog/internet as physical space and display art as if on the walls of a gallery. The essays were the subtle underpinning like a coffee table book rather than a WG Sebald story. If there are fewer images on my site than before it’s because I have
run out of art I like less time than previously, but early examples here like this post (and this and this and this and this) are in practice how I feel a blog post should communicate. Never would I have guessed that two years later the interplay of text and image would still stand out as unique. Six months down the line — the Internet landscape post-iPad — I expect this won’t be the case.