August 13, 2010, Ian Greenleigh
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
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
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
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.