Real Curation Requires Effort, Point of View

Curator's Hand, by Marinmuseum, cc-by-nd,

Many of today’s popular deal-a-day sites claim to be creating “curated” experiences for their audiences. Many social media publishers focus on “curating” the stream of blog posts, tweets, and other content objects on specific topics. But what does that curation really mean? What’s the point of view behind the curator’s decisions about what to include and what not to include?

My friend and former colleague Margot Bloomstein presented earlier this week at SXSW on the topic of Creation, Curation, and the Ethics of Content Strategy, drawing on interviews with museum curators about their craft, and arguing that true curation requires:

  • Scope and Perspective: Determining what to include and what to exclude
  • Cultivation, Aggregation, and Editing: The (often difficult) work of gathering the items to be part of the collection, which may be in private collections, other museums, or buried deep in archives
  • Building the Story for the Target Audience: The curator focuses on specific audiences, in both the catalog (which appeals more to the serious collector/scholar) and the exhibit itself (which must address the specialist but also a general interest audience) and on telling those audiences a story. The curator hopes to add a new understanding of the subject for each audience, not just re-present what they believe they already know.
  • Organization, Juxtaposition, Hierarchy, Emphasis: These are tools of the curator in telling that story. It isn’t just about deciding what is in or out of the collection but about how those items are contextualized, placed, arranged, and edited.
  • Bias: A curator has a point of view, and deliberately foregrounds that point of view, often in a curator’s statement.

In other words, curation is not easy work. It is not something done by algorithms and automated software filters. Adding a twitter feed or rss import to your site which pulls in all mentions of your topic keywords does not make you a curator, any more than your word processing programs’ ability to string words together makes you a writer. (I’m reminded of Truman Capote’s dismissal of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”).

Truly curated experiences bear the mark of the curator’s hand (or curators’ hands).

What point-of-view is Groupon, or Living Social, or Gilt hoping to cultivate in the world? (The value of spas, manicures, and pedicures? The importance of cultural experiences like theater, whale watching, and the symphony? Whiter teeth? Exercise? ) Do they really cultivate and source rare experiences, or is it just a platform for aggregating deals together for presentation to an audience?

When you consider “curation” as one of your brand or company’s goals, can you define what your intent is in that creation? What kind of point-of-view you hope to expect?

If you aggregating blog posts and tweets on a given subject, but not exercising editorial control or influence, let’s just call that content aggregation. If you’re putting serious effort, vision, perspective, and consistency into choosing, arranging, and expressing a point of view through the act of assembling the collection, you just might be doing real curation.