Curation – Everybody’s Doing It. Are You?
I’ve noticed lately there’s a new word out there – or rather an old word in a new context. “Curation” – an act I think of as being done in museums – is showing up more and more often in the communications field. I find it everywhere: while catching up with a colleague who tells me she’s been “curating the program for a conference”; in an article in Buzzfeed that tells me that @brainpicker, a favorite Twitter feed that I follow, is the work of an “online curator” named Maria Popova; in a Mashable review of Tumblr, a popular blogging platform and social networking site, that explains how Tumblr has started doing its own “curating.”
What “curate” seems to mean right now is find a lot of beautiful and interesting things, put them together in one place and then share your collection with others, usually via social media. And all of a sudden it’s what all the cool kids are doing – the hot new way to both experience and share things found on the internet.
Which leads me to the obvious question: As a communications professional should I be curating?
Carina Chocono’s recent piece on the subject for the New York Times Magazine turned out to be an excellent source of information on the topic – if only to confirm my suspicion that “curation” in its latest iteration is still up for grabs. Although she touches on Tumblr, much of Chocono’s article focuses on this year’s internet sensation, Pinterest, a site that lets you share images you find on the web by “pinning” them to virtual pinboards. Pinterest, which had 10,000 users in 2010 and rocketed to 11.7 million in January of 2012, is, for Chocono, one of the best examples of the proliferation of a kind of “visual catch bin blog” which may or may not be changing what people think of as curation.
In the article she posits several different reasons for the proliferation of this kind of site. She quotes Pinterest’s own creator, Ben Silbermann, who sees collecting existing content online and re-organizing it for oneself as a way of curating self-expression. “Most of us aren’t that interesting…,” says Silbermann, “when we collect things and when we share those collections with people, that’s how we show who we are in the world.” In other words, Pinterest and sites like it are a way to “curate” personhood.
Others, reports Chocono see things differently. Choire Sicha, the editor of The Awl, a website about arts and cultures that produces its content the old-fashioned way – via a staff of writers who produce original work – had this most emphatic statement:
“As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright infringing sometimes? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it…”
Chocono’s own take on things is somewhat gentler. Pinterest and Tumblr, she says, are basically “longing machines” – repositories for web-based collections of dreams and aspirations. But she stops well short of suggesting they have a value beyond personal expression. She describes Tumblr as a source of “wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition[s], of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K”. In other words, not really curation in any ordinary sense of the word at all.
And yet, any self-respecting communications professional can’t dismiss a social media platform that went from 10,000 to 10.7 million users in two years, nor a social behavior phenomenon that’s looking an awful lot like a significant trend, if not an outright seachange – not if we’re to be ceaseless in our goal to reach and keep our audiences.
Which means the answer to my original question is…yes.
So where to begin?
Well, for starters, here’s how Beth Kanter, author of Beth’s Blog defines the curating that’s becoming more common among social media savvy nonprofits:
“Curation has nothing to do with personal expression or sharing nor with collecting links, tweets, or blog posts that you may find interesting. Curation is all about helping your audience dive in and make sense of a specific topic, issue, event or news story. It is about collecting, but it is also about explaining, illustrating, bringing in different points of view and updating the view as it changes. It is also about sharing with your community – not passing along stuff that you have not read or contextualized or shooting out links. “
Kanter’s concept—which she recently explained in an NTEN webinar, “The Unanticipated Benefits of Curation”– seems to offer a single solution to two of my most pressing professional concerns. First is how to manage the deluge of information coming at me online and the anxiety it can sometimes produce in me. Second is how to make my messages to my constituencies clearer, more compelling and more authoritative.
I found Kanter’s 90-minute webinar especially helpful in offering solutions for my first problem: the deluge and anxiety issue — what she describes as being “content fried.” Of particular note was the distinction she made between news discovery tools like paper.li, flipboard and a good old-fashioned RSS feed which help you find and select your information, usually through keywords or hashtags and curation tools like Pinterest, scoop.it and Storify which help you display your curation. (For more on Storify, check out this recent post by Katherine Miller of Hattaway Communications.)
But there remains my second issue – will curation – as Kanter defines it – help me reach and influence my audience more effectively? Is it the next essential tactic in an effective communications strategy?
I can’t speak from personal experience – yet – but I can offer a few interesting examples that I “curated” from some quick Google searches.
The Gates Foundation is using Storify to highlight programs and personalities across their spectrum of work. Of particular note is the story “Living #belowtheline” that curates photos and commentary from Foundation employee Laurie Lee’s experiment in living on a one euro per day.
The Greater Cincinnati Foundation is featuring their grantees on Pinterest by using a pinboard to to showcase photos and short stories about them without relying on a long list of text. Check out their moving and diverse set of snapshots and graphics of their grantees on their GCF Grants pinboard.
On the non-profit side, Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Reading List” on Pinterest is a library of reading material that they recommend. As a repository of influence it looks like the real deal: the visuals are big, bold and compelling, the titles are endorsed by peer viewers in the comments, and it’s two quick clicks to putting the book – and with it any one of Amnesty International’s key messages – in your very own amazon.com cart.
Another non-profit, Doctors Without Borders is using Tumblr to help its audience to share its messages. With just a touch of a button you can “curate” an eye-catching infographic on AIDS/HIV treatment and prevention out to all your own followers – this is a Tumblr primed perfectly for viral.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your experience with online content curation? Has your organization adopted the term into its everyday operation? Is curating a messaging priority? Are there dedicated “curators” on your communications staff?