Archive for the Content Curation Category
The curation for what ails us? When good ideas are oversold
Curation is not the cure. (flickr credit: higlu)

Curation is not the cure (flickr credit: higlu)

I’ve been a proponent of content curation for months now. It’s thrilling to see it enter the mainstream of our dialogue on social media marketing, but it’s almost equally frustrating. Have you ever liked an artist or band while they’re still relatively unknown? How did you feel when they finally made it big? Most of us are excited for the artists, and excited for those that are just now getting to experience what we’ve loved for months or years. But what happens when their music starts to change as a response to their newfound popularity? Is it the same band you once loved?

I’m not even close to giving up on content curation. I’m just not happy with the direction some are trying to take it. Content curation used to be discussed as a smart practice, a way to strengthen social marketing strategies, and a partial solution to some of the problems we in marketing face. Then marketers decided to sell the concept itself, after they—ahem—rebranded it a bit. That process is going on right now, and it’s not pretty. But it’s not too late to reclaim what is a great idea, realign our expectations with reality, and continue to innovate.

From best practice to panacea

The writers that got many of us thinking about content curation had the ability (and foresight?) to excite us about the subject without relying on bullshit buzzwords and “next-big-thing” predictions. Lee Odden explored the balance of curation and creation within the “mix of an online marketing program,” but he didn’t come anywhere near suggesting that curation should be our content strategy.   Matt Chandler discussed curation as “an alternative to flooding [users] with algorithmically-chosen content,” that he considered ill-fitting and ineffective. Heidi Cool told us to “to augment the self-created content you are using to communicate with your audience”.

And then came the salesmen. I don’t mean that everyone that celebrates curation has a financial motive or platform to sell. Often they do, often they don’t. I’m simply pointing out that curation is being oversold as the one, true content strategy, when it’s clearly insufficient.

Stuffing two falsehoods into one headline, Steve Rosenbaum (founder of video curation software company Magnify) declared in Business Insider that “Content Is No Longer King: Curation Is King.” I’ve already explained why that’s not the case. Rosenbaum fused common misconceptions about social media (“The new Expert is the leader with the most twitter followers, not the person on the speed-dial from CNN”) with an overview of the “information overload” phenomenon. Paul Gillin’s relatively accurate brief on the value of content curation to the B2B space devolves into extreme oversimplification in the last paragraph:

“Pick a unique topic for a blog. Post a few headlines and summaries each day. Add a weekly newsletter. Then watch the traffic grow.”

But the most egregious misrepresentation to date of content curation’s promise comes from Social Media Examiner’s Jamie Beckland. His title alone, “How to Grow a Following With Other People’s Popular Content,” could win an award for linkbait of the year. Of course I clicked. Describing curation as a “short cirtcuit” around “spending tons of time,” Beckland then tones it down a bit, to his credit, allowing that it “won’t completely alleviate the need to blog or tweet from scratch.” But by that point, he’s already painted a picture of content curation as a shake-and-bake process. Hell, when you begin with a title that includes the phrase, “using other people’s popular content,” there’s really no way to transition into a realistic discussion of curation strategy.

Come on, guys. Let’s tone it down a bit. Content curation is a big  idea—it doesn’t need your hype, and it doesn’t need you to bottle it up and sell it as something else. Big ideas can’t be slipped into anyone’s pocket, and they’re far too complex to be stuffed into any particular use case. We haven’t found the cure for the ailing content strategy, but we have found something thoroughly exciting. Isn’t that enough?

Social self-importance: Why content curation will never be king

Let’s be clear: Content curation will not save any of us from having to author our own content. Anyone that attempts to position curation as a shortcut, to any extent,  is wrong (and probably trying to sell you something). Expecting people to care what you read without first earning their attention with your own work is nothing more than self-importance gone social.

No one gives a damn what content you’ve shared if you haven’t brought considerable value to the table first. And determining what constitutes “considerable value” isn’t your call to make. Amber Naslund summed this up nicely in a recent tweet:

@be3d that value has to be in the eyes of the reader. Not your own "brand" viewpoint. #techchat

One of the most well-known curation efforts to date is Alltop. Creator Guy Kawasaki, however, was popular long before Alltop. People wanted to know what he was reading because he had established his thought leadership working at Apple and by writing books like The Macintosh Way. Similarly, I read Jay Baer’s link curation emails because I’m a fan of his work, I’ve seen him speak, and frankly, I want to be more like him professionally. So getting a sense of the things on his mind is important to me, and one way to find out is to read what he reads.

Successful content curators have proven themselves, in whatever space they inhabit, prior to their success in curation. There’s the rub. No matter how interesting the 3rd party content you collect is, no matter how insightful your added commentary and critique seems to be, your audience-building strategy will fail if curation comes first.

What we’re dealing with here, to a degree, is the unfortunately-entrenched myth that “content is king” in social media. Brian Clark tried to wake us up from this sweet dream with his piece, What’s a Content King Without a Kingdom?

“Yes content is indispensable, but the entire environment is powered by people. If you have no people on your side, your content isn’t king… it’s just a lonely loser with delusions of grandeur. (…) Content marketing is all about communication. You need to attract the attention of prospects and communicate your subject matter expertise.”

You need to build a kingdom of interested readers before you can expect your content to thrive on a consistent basis. A post might get picked up every so often and make a splash on Twitter, but this does very little for your overall efforts. Seconds later—minutes if you’re lucky—they’re on to the next blog competing for their attention. But if you routinely demonstrate your leadership through your own efforts first, you’ll eventually cultivate an audience that will also be receptive to the external content you share with them through curation.

Have I become disillusioned with content curation? Quite the opposite. None of this should dash your dreams of content curation mastery. You still have two clear paths to success:

1. Focus on the spaces in which you already have cachet. If people already see you as a leader, they’ll be receptive to your guidance through the universe of related content.

2. Earn area recognition through creating content that stands on its own instead of waiting for your curation work to be noticed.  Once you’ve got the audience, devote more time and effort to content curation because it’s likelier to pay off.

The latter option makes more sense for me and most of the people I know. What about you?

Lessons on content curation from the shadow world of intelligence gathering
NSA listening post

A suspected NSA listening post. (Photo credit: Flickr user Schrottie)

Content curation, reduced to its most basic functions, is a process of filtering and reporting. What we extract, from where, at what frequency, and to who or whom we deliver our results all depends on our objectives and abilities.

To really master something—anything—we need to study the techniques of established experts. If I’m learning chess, I might learn the basics by playing with some fellow beginners, but to truly grow into an advanced player, I’ll need to watch the old Russians in Palisades Park.

But who are the masters of the content curation craft? My own tracing of the history of content curation was intentionally limited to the Internet era, but in truth its roots go much deeper. Curation has long been a necessity in the realm of intelligence gathering for national security, and it’s there we’ll find our true experts.

Mind over machine

Echelon is an immensely-powerful “listening” network comprised of orbiting satellites and ground stations that monitor the world’s civilian telecommunications. Jointly operated by intelligence services in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the system is used in the “sorting [of] captured signal traffic, rather than [as] a comprehensive analysis tool” (Wikipedia). Intelligence expert Gordon Thomas writes that it “sifts tens of billions of snippets of information, daily, matching them up,” and it has been estimated that “90 percent of all traffic that flows through the Internet” also flows through Echelon.

Here’s where curation comes into play:

“Suspects, names, key words, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses are all sucked up by NSA satellites—either circling or geopositioned around the earth—and downloaded to the computers. There the data are coded into ‘watch lists,’ then fed into the system that takes the lists on secure lines throughout the U.S. intelligence community.”

-Gordon Thomas, “Gideon’s Spies”

Human analysis of these lists is next, because even Echelon is far from perfect. For instance, it’s often stumped by “noisy or degraded signal[s],” and the linguistic nuances of “dialects and patois”.

But even at the initial gathering stages, human sources are seen as highly valuable, working in parallel to the supercomputers that process the data fire hose. “A spy on the ground could judge a conversation in its setting, obtain finer details that are lost to even the most sophisticated electronic surveillance.”

Tools to empower, not replace

What does this mean for our version of content curation? Simple: Tools are no substitute for the human brain. We might be building amazing programs for sentiment analysis, for instance, but curation can never be fully automated. After all, our brains are still the most powerful and efficient computing devices on the planet. A certain amount of automated sifting may be necessary given the staggering (and rapidly increasing) amount of data we encounter in our daily lives, but this sifting should always be near our information “intakes” (feeds, email reports, Twitter streams, etc.), and nowhere near our “outputs” (what we share through our blogs, tweets, emails, etc.). There is a point in every content curation cycle at which the human touch is necessary. This point differs for every use case and goal, but it always exists and it always adds value.

Avoid “shiny object syndrome,” and realize that looking for the one true curation tool that will take all the effort out of the process is ultimately self-defeating. Your time is much better spent learning and sharing, while developing personal processes that help you do this.

Isn’t that what your end users want, anyway? I suspect that most of us prefer to see this human footprint in the curation we consume. We want to know that the content we’re reading has been hand-selected by someone we trust as an expert, and not a lifeless set of algorithms—no matter how advanced.

The past, present and future of content curation

A lot of us were curating before we knew what to call it. The word still doesn’t appear in most dictionaries, so myself and others have been chiseling out a definition post-by-post. Etymology is one thing, but to fully understand curation we need to look at its evolution.

The Weblog: From diaries to news

Justin Hall- First Blogger

Justin Hall: The first blogger (Flickr photo credit: Joi Ito)

From Wikipedia:

The modern blog evolved from the online diary, where people would keep a running account of their personal lives. Most such writers called themselves diarists, journalists, or journalers. Justin Hall, who began personal blogging in 1994 while a student at Swarthmore College, is generally recognized as one of the earliest bloggers, as is Jerry Pournelle.  Dave Winer’s Scripting News is also credited with being one of the oldest and longest running weblogs.

While blogs began as a way to chronicle the lives of the authors, they soon became popular ways to share news updates, opinions and discussions about myriad topics of interest. In this latter form, they involved curation; at its most basic, the selection and sharing of content with others.

The blogroll: Betting on past content

I won’t get into the “is the blogroll still advantageous” debate (today, at least). This blog doesn’t have one; the Bazaarvoice Blog does.

Wikipedia’s definition:

A list of other blogs that a blogger might recommend by providing links to them (usually in a sidebar list).

Here was the next step in curation, in the sense that links to blogs were selected based on some criteria, theme or goal. Blogrolls are often just a set of permalinks to whatever the blogger reads. The links will be there on the homepage, at least, until the blogger changes them on the backend—so blogrolls are static, or maybe semi-static.

They’re also pretty lame. As a form of endorsement, they get the job done, especially from an SEO perspective, as they pass on “authority” that search engines consider in rankings. But are we endorsing every post published on every blog we’re linking to? No. We’re saying, “go there and poke around, because I like to do that.” We’re not featuring any of the content we like to poke around in on our site, at least not through the blogroll. We’re passing along our recommendations for sources of content, not pieces of content.

In general, we’re failing to remove blogs from our rolls if their quality begins to suffer: We’re betting on past content. True content curation is as granular and selective as we’d like it to be. Blogrolls just don’t cut it.

“Best of” and “Top X” lists: The incomplete standard

Lists aren't very sexy. (Flickr photo credit: Fanboy30)

Posts that highlight a number of other content pieces from external sources are relatively easy to compile, publish and distribute. One-off posts on breaking news and updates are popular and arguably valuable as well. They don’t take too long to create, and they add value through curation by informing readers of things they may have missed, passing along link juice and social cred, and maintaining a varied content mix in general.

These posts, however, have two major drawbacks. First, the content management systems they rely upon (like WordPress) aren’t made for rich media. They’re made for vertically-linear, mostly-text updates. Workarounds abound in the form of plugins and code, but piecing together a seamless curation experience takes far too much effort and behind the scenes tinkering. Second, gathering and sharing the content still relies on 3rd party tools. We need to leave the system to find content before we share it through the system. Bookmarklets remove a step, but don’t deliver a completely fluid experience.

Social media streams: Better than fire hoses, but…

Platforms like TweetDeck have come a long way. Things like native URL shortening and picture upload and viewing make it less necessary to go elsewhere in order to find and share information. However, the amount of content we can experience before needing to click on a link to see the original source is limited. Most filtering still relies on manual friend selection and Boolean strings, and is tedious and complicated to implement. The big advantage of these social networks is near-perfect control of shared content. The stream we share was created by us.

The future of content curation: In and out in a single experience.

The idea is pretty simple and intuitive, but far from achieved. Curators need the best way to both find and share content.


A backend through which streams of every popular content type can be digested easily, natively and in full. Part reader, part viewer, part gallery.


Aesthetically-customizable, rich output to a public frontend. Modular. Shareable across popular social networks. Full control over publishing—as wide or narrow of a stream as the curator cares to share with the world.

We’ve arrived when I don’t need to leave.

Curation, attention deficit and the exaflood

Overwhelmed by a conversation about being overwhelmed.

I have a column in Tweetdeck devoted to all mentions of “curation”. Added shortly before I started searching for a working definition of curation, it was the perfect solution to the problem of keeping up with all the latest murmurings on a topic that continues to fascinate me. Content on the subject was being published at a digestible pace, and it seemed we all had time to reflect, analyze and, if we cared to do so, publish our own thoughts, either in comments or on our blogs. Of course, there has always been noise—automated, RSS-fed or query-driven bots aren’t easy to filter out, and this is the path that many feel will lead to success in social media. Nor are the digital brown-nosers, retweeting verbatim the words of their chosen gurus, without adding anything at all of value. But even with these annoyances, the curation conversation stream, it seems in retrospect, was relatively clear, lively and exciting.

This week, I realized that I’m no longer able to follow and participate as easily as just a few months ago. Indeed, since my first curation-related post on June 11th of this year, 3,996 additional posts, whose titles contain the phrase “curation”, have been published on blogs across the social web.

From this Neil Perkin piece, we get a quote by Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

“Between the dawn of civilisation and 2003, five exabytes of information were created. In the last two days, five exabytes of information have been created, and that rate is accelerating”.

“Exaflood” is a term coined by Brett Swanson, and it’s an interesting way to imagine what we’re up against, from both the infrastructural and intellectual perspectives.

A familiar feeling sets in—that of being overwhelmed by possibilities.

Ask anyone that truly knows me: I have too many ideas for my own good. These ideas are just as often great as they are a distraction from other ideas, more worthy of my devotion. But singular devotion has never been fully possible for me, the way that you’ll meet someone every so often that tells you they knew they wanted to be a firefighter since they were 6 years old—and followed through with this dream to its fruition.  Maybe this condition is merely symptomatic of my lifelong struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I’m probably just more predisposed to being overwhelmed in this way, and my ADD exacerbates it to the point that I spread myself far too thin, putting in a little work here, a little development there, some planning for this and that, while ultimately getting nowhere with anything. My two biggest achievements thus far in life (degree from UT and Social Media Manager job at Bazaarvoice) came through a willing, conscious effort to maintain a sustained focus that is uncomfortably contrary to my nature.

That itch feels familiar... (A panel from "Calliope", written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Kelley Jones & Malcolm Jones III)

In Neil Gaiman’s story, “Calliope”, his Sandman character casts a deeply-debilitating spell on a human villain: that of an unyielding, constant barrage of good ideas. Without the ability to execute on them, our villain feels bludgeoned by them. To a far lesser extent, I can identify. Before seeing a thought through to its resolution or transformation into something of value, I tend to encounter another “shiny” thought and pursue it with the intellectual excitement I once had for the thought I now abandon. People without ADD encounter this, too. In a sense, social media has led us here, to a place where we all feel overwhelmed to various degrees. Perhaps others don’t become quite as overwhelmed, but none of us possess the mental resources to categorize and process the swirling mix of ideas that spins around us nearly every time we interact via social media. It’s impossible.

One of the reasons we create, more than in any other time in history, is because we have been given access through technology to millions upon millions of others—a potential audience that didn’t and couldn’t exist before the Web and social media. So now that our creative endeavors don’t have to remain our little secret; now that we can almost guarantee that our work will be seen, we are driven to create it at a feverish tempo, and driven to share it with as many people as we’re able. Similarly, now that we have access to this fire hose of information that contains, somewhere in the stream, the stuff we’re really after, we become fixated. After awhile, we become overwhelmed.

Curation maximizes cognitive efficiency.

Our typical style of consumption:

  1. We turn on the fire hose (Twitter, Alltop, whatever)
  2. We adjust the signal (try to create streams more suited to our tastes, make columns in our Twitter clients)
  3. We simultaneously absorb and refine—but it’s still too much

The ultimate promise of curation:

  1. We are delivered only the content that meets our predefined criteria (and it’s enough to digest without being overwhelmed)

We’re not there yet.

That much is obvious. But I’m seeing some promising, if scattered, developments that indicate we’re well on our way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I see something shiny I simply must attend to.

Bonus! Ian’s latest recommended reading on content curation:

  1. Content Curation for Twitter: How to be a thought leader DJ
  2. Content & Curation: An epic poem
  3. Disposable Content
Content curation: Definition before innovation?

Although I’m right in the thick of the content curation definition debate, I’m starting to think it’s fundamentally a distraction from real innovation. It’s a bit like beginning a project by holding a meeting in which all you do is plan future meetings that will—ostensibly— lead to project completion. Maybe we should focus more on doing, and less on defining. What content curation “means” will sort itself out once we see more and more good work that can’t really be called anything else.

Book on Table

Are we "doers" or "definers'? Or can we be both? (photo credit: flickr's alexbrn)

And isn’t this how we should want it? This is the Internet, after all, and we’re not particularly into fixed definitions, unbreakable rules or governing bodies.  Consensus, orthodoxy and formulas don’t interest me, nor do they interest those in this world on the bleeding edge of innovation. I don’t think it’s really a dichotomy, either; talking about curation and actually doing it well aren’t mutually exclusive. But my sense is that the people that will truly lead in whatever content curation becomes are doing a lot more walking than talking, even if they’ll engage every so often in a little public thinking out loud on the subject.

These are the guys that are letting the conversation swirl around them while they tinker away on something about which we’ll soon say, “now that’s curation,” in the same way we say, “now that’s a car” when we take a spin in our friend’s new Audi. Of course, there will always be those things we can point to and say, “sure, that’s curation, too,” which we might follow up with, “but it’s no X”. Because a real, holistic definition isn’t just something we apply to the best-in-breed—there will always be unremarkable and uninspired curation out there, and it’s important that we apply the term to even the stuff that doesn’t wow us. Bad art is still art, bad music is still music.

The doubters and critics of the promise of curation seem to apply the term almost exclusively to “bad” examples, whether they exist yet or not. For instance, Paul Bradshaw quotes a museum curator that dismisses content curation as nothing more than “selecting”, a sentiment with which many (including myself) would disagree. And so the term curation also risks becoming unfairly pejorative.

That’s it for now. What say you?

Am I curating yet? Drawing the lines between creation, aggregation and curation

The tweet below sums up what I suspect many of us feel about the debate surrounding creation, aggregation, and curation.

I think the word "curate" needs some curation.... RT @: CEO of @: "Content is king" is dead. Now, "curation is king." #iwny
This might sound strange, but I know I’m a fan of curation even though I’m not quite sure what it means—anymore. I thought I knew, until I started digging deeper and deeper, trying to locate the line in the sand between what I thought was curation, and the ostensibly less creative/valuable/fair (take your pick) process of aggregation. So where is the line? Can there ever be a standard, accepted definition for curation? I think it’s close to universally recognized that Google News, for instance,  has been in the aggregation box. But is that still true given this latest development (see tweet below)?

Love this GNews -- it's not curation by select few, recommendation, crowdsourced aggregation -- but combo of all those:
Vanity Fair Wayfarer
If you think, as I do, that the mere act of editing adds value, does Google’s new test of human selection vs. algorithmic feed pass from the realm of “mere” aggregation into curation territory? How much value do we have to add before we call ourselves curators?

Brian Solis thinks that filtering for relevance is one of the best ways we can pare down the constant flux of our real-time social streams into digestible, attention-worthy content packages:

But relatively simple ways of meeting these basic filtering requirements have been around since social media came into the mainstream. Brian seems to be saying that it takes something else, an additional element, to make that leap from aggregation to curation. And when even Brian struggles to articulate what that secret sauce is, it’s safe to say that the question is nowhere near resolution.

Robert Scoble defines the curator as

… an information chemist. He or she mixes atoms together in a way to build an info-molecule. Then adds value to that molecule.

Even if we don’t quite know what it is, we know we want it.

Consider this:

Throughout this post, I’ve featured what I see as germane bits of conversations from around the Web. I’ve used them to illustrate the questions I’m asking, and I’ve added my personal take or reaction to each. It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that I’m therefore engaging in curation.

But what if I did this? (Click here and come right back)

Would I then be a curator or an aggregator? Was the act of selecting this particular grouping of content and then presenting it all in one place enough to clear the gap between the two? I don’t have the answer.

But my point—yeah, I have one—is that we seem to be staggeringly far from the answer, despite our best attempts. Maybe it’s one of the core issues we are trying to address with curation, exponential information growth, that is ultimately keeping us from agreeing on its definition.

Special thanks to @robinsloan for creating Blackbird Pie. The tool was exactly what I needed for this post.