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?
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:
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?
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.
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.
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?