Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Curation is Opinion

In the hyperbolic hypertext world, content aggregation is a business model unto itself. There are schemas for systems for APIs for metadata for indexes for repositories, and we’re all trying to make sense of it in our own way. Content will be bookmarked, liked, starred, retweeted, pinned, and socialized; once it gets into the wild, it will be further fragmented, taken out of context, linked to, reformatted, archived, shared, stolen, translated and misquoted.

This churn of content is horse-trading at an incalculable level. But it is not curation.

Imagine collections without context:

  1. Imagine going to a library where every book was on a single shelf 100 yards long. There are no signs indicating section breaks, no promoted books, no card catalog, no staff making recommendations, no indication of what’s new, no Garfield posters encouraging kids to read.
  2. Imagine going to an art show where all of the paintings are organized by size in one giant warehouse. There is no indication of who painted what, no pricing, no small cards with information like dimensions or medium, no program discussing the show’s purpose, no staff to answer questions, and no small trays of wine in plastic cups.
  3. Imagine going to a history museum, where all the items are on a giant rug in the middle of the floor. There are no dates, no descriptions, no reference to period events, no sense of significance – not even an entry fee.

In these examples, there is no tapestry of significance. Instead of a meaningful whole that collects thousands of threads to form a greater picture, we’re left with a shapeless, beige pile of individual strings.

Fortunately for us, libraries, galleries and museums are not managed like this. They are curated.

Curation is the act of collecting, organizing and presenting thematically related content through the filter of your own expertise. It is the sum of Stuff, editorially packaged. It is the creation of an environment in which the whole of content becomes greater than the sum of the parts, the manifestation of context. Most importantly, it is your opinion. If curation is going to be a serious discipline of content strategy, this responsibility must be clear.

For contrast, the opposite end of the spectrum is archiving: unbiased, systemic organization, based on established patterns like alpha-numeric ordering. Anyone can store and later retrieve by date, author, price, dimension, rating, or whatever metadata is used.

With words, value comes from meaning. Integrity and responsibility are critical in maintaining a lexicon that can precisely, with graceful nuance, communicate a sophisticated concept. “Curate” is specific. It is not a synonym. It has meaning unto itself that should be used with the deliberateness of a piece of surgical equipment. I’m picking on it here because copywriters — through ignorance or deceit — over-use its novelty to shift attention away from other problems, like slapping an “organic” label on a box of donuts.