Web Curators

A microgallery, sort ofA couple days ago, I ran across an article that caused me to think about certain aspects of the Web in ways I hadn't before. In fact, it was posted on Suw Charman's Strange Attractor blog, and she mentions therein the falling barriers to creativity due to technology and its ready availability to the masses. That part isn't news, exactly, but a bit further along things became more intriguing.

I was at a 'future of...' session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was 'the ubiquity of everything'. My fellow brainstormers didn't seem to agree with the word 'everything', but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

Some sort of global attention-deficit disorder, perhaps? As it turns out, what Ms. Charman has in mind is the sheer volume of stuff available on demand, more than anyone can reasonably handle: movies, blogs, podcasts, Internet radio, games, Web applications, and of course there are still the books. Then, as more and more people become intrigued—and even excited, to use her word—with this new creative, participatory outlet, we wind up with a feedback loop. Amplification leads to more amplification until the volume exceeds the system's ability to generate anything but distortion, and then it all goes nonlinear and collapses into a state of spurious oscillation. Then the universe, as we know it, ends.

Ha ha—just kidding. The universe doesn't really end. What really happens, according to Suw's model, is an increasing necessity for filtering and aggregation, only not in the way it's been traditionally done. In other words, we don't need gatekeepers; we need curators.

We do, however, still need help. There's just too much stuff around for us to know what's out there, to keep up with what's good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

It's an interesting concept, really. It's difficult for me to think of the Net as a museum, or even a gallery, but that's only because the exhibits are in such a tremendous state of flux; some are definitely gathering e-dust, but new exhibits are arriving by the nanosecond.

Aside from the more obvious conceptual differences, there are a couple things that set the traditional curator and the new Web curator apart. For one, curators usually don't contribute their own work to the exhibits, at least not on a regular basis. And the speed and volume of new creations vying for attention—and exhibit space—requires constant attention, which demands a proportional expenditure of energy, and time. So who, exactly, will perform this new job? Actually, you will. Or already are, maybe.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

In this context, the distinction is between the traditional "media gatekeepers"—those unwanted "arbiters of taste," as Suw describes them—and The People Formerly Known as the Audience, which includes you and me. As curators of our own little chunks of the Web, we decide what's worthwhile; we decide what deserves exhibit space in our galleries. And as contributors, we become curators of our own work as well.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of 'popularity begetting popularity'.

The problem of noise in the system is likely to worsen with increased participation, but as curators we don't have to contribute to it. For anyone with a blog, there's a certain pressure to keep the thing going at all costs; the old publish or perish influence remains in effect on the Net. Better to spend a few extra minutes—or hours, if that's what it takes—considering the relative merits of the new exhibit, instead of merely filling space on the gallery walls. As for that popularity feedback-loop . . . well, some things just take a bit longer to work out.


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