Mind Map by Jane Genovese (click for a larger version)Mind Map by Jane Genovese (click for a larger version)

Curation – Everybody’s Doing It. Are You?

Mind Map

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.

Mind Map by Jane Genovese (click for a larger version).

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.liflipboard 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? 


  1. Ed DoddsEd Dodds08-01-2012

    everybody curates, they usually just don’t do it intentionally. folks tweet when they really should bookmark, they facebook and google plus post when they really should bookmark, they blog post when they really should bookmark. Hmm i sense a theme here. seriously, any time you PR or discover make certain to delicious or diigo or what have you and try to be as consistent with keyword taxonomies as possible. otherwise, even with search engines, much social posting ends up being unfindable by those who don’t know it exists.

    • Ed – If I understand you correctly you’re proposing the alternative option to curation – which is essentially tagging, or organizing – right? Don’t use Twitter or FB or whatever to just mentally bookmark, but rather bookmark with intention. I like this as I don’t, actually, think of myself as a curator – there are plenty of good curators out there. What I needs is a consistent methodology to track my own stuff. You give me room for thought here. Thanks.

  2. WIll B. SullivanWIll B. Sullivan08-02-2012

    Great article, Courtney. This is an important conversation – especially as the fever pitch around the use of the word “curation” risks turning it quickly into jargon.

    We’ve been talking about curation for a while. But much like “content strategy” – it may be a newish term, but it’s an age-old practice. I appreciate a line in Wikipedia’s entry on curation – “In smaller organizations, a curator may have sole responsibility for the acquisition and care of objects.”

    The last part is something we should focus on – the idea that the curator takes care over the objects he or she is acquiring. Care requires attention and understanding. And these are elements that are all-too often discarded when we simply aggregate and re-purpose information without any thought.

    One thing that’s often lost in the idea of curating, is the idea of care and understanding – that you’re not merely finding and aggregating resources and then repurposing them via publishing tools – which is indeed a great skill – but that you are using your understanding of a topic to select, with care, items, objects, information, etc. that help provide people with a deeper understanding and appreciation of a given subject.

    In this right, the act of curation, and therefore the curator themselves, are a crucial part of the process – not merely a vessel – passing something from one hand to the next like an information bucket-brigade.
    Care and understanding of course leads to finding, identifying and contextualing those items that may seem less than obvious to the un-initiated – offering multi-faceted viewpoints that are unique, valuable and increasingly necessary in sorting through the deluge of information pouring in over the transom. The challenge is that care and understanding take time – and time is a commodity we’re constantly trying to figure out how to re-engineer to somehow squeeze extra utility out of fewer and fewer seconds.

    Lest we forget, that prior to our writing the collective obituary of journalism in this country, the professional American journalist was among the most trusted curators in our lives.

    And there is where I hope those of us exploring curation, are able to move beyond the buzz words; the shallow definition of an action, rather than a careful, thoughtful art. If we focus on understanding and care, as curators we will spend more time examining what we find and applying rigorous, objective academic scrutiny to the information we wish to contextualize.

    As we mark the rise of digital curation, let’s be sure to capture with equal volume, the more important rise (or perhaps return) of the responsible, careful curator.

    Those who, in the parlance of communications professionals, “move the needle” will go beyond the obvious, into the depths of data sets and complex subjects, and emerge with ideas that will better help us understand our world.

    • Will – amen to you! And here’s the thing. That “care and understanding” you write about so forcefully is something that takes time and thought. A person can’t just do that in the half hour between meetings on his/her blackberry. I wonder will organizations embrace this idea forcefully enough to fund it – to actually build in the capacity? If we look at what happened to journalism I’d say it’s not likely. But then, I still hope for the resurgence of journalism in a new, just as trusted, form. (Yes, I have been watching The Newsroom.)

      And what do you think of Ed’s comment? The difference between organizing carefully versus curating? I like it b/c it lets me off the curation hook – I can outsource it to a specialist. Is that a cop out?

      • WIll B. SullivanWIll B. Sullivan08-02-2012

        Hi, Courtney. The rub, here, is that organizations have to adapt by rethinking their staffing. There’s no quick fix. But it’s not something that orgs should wait on – they should begin developing social business plans – to empower and activate existing employees to contribute to content – and then start to bring on staff who have different tiles, roles, and skill sets.

        I think Ed’s comment shows that there are strata in this conversation – there is room for the organization and aggregation (with direction). But if we really want to talk seriously about curation, we need to respect the role and function and staff it appropriately with people whose job it is to be careful and thoughtful.

        Many may say that this is not realistic. Well – welcome to the new reality! And this reality may mean that these roles and positions aren’t as exposed to the commmon blackberry scenario you mention above. Numerous studies have shown how damaging fragmented attention spans and disruptions are to effective thinking and productivity – time we started taking them more seriously.

  3. Watching the back and forth between you two — Will and Courtney — I’m struck by how “everything that is old is new again.”

    Way “back” in 2008 the Network published a report that looked at how emerging technologies would affect future communications operations within foundations. We cited Ernest James Wilson III, dean and Walter Annenberg chair in communication at the University of Southern California, who said that for foundations to make the best use of what the technology offers, among the things to concentrate on was:
    “Building up the individual ‘human capital’ of their staffs and provide them the competencies they need to operate in the new digital world.”

    Amen, again.

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