The difference between curation and regurgitation

There’s a gap as big as the grand canyon between regurgitated aggregation and quality curation.

Unfortunately, the content marketing bandwagon is not as discriminating.

John Henry would make a damn fine journalistAt least once a week I stumble across a tool that promises me that a robot – or an algorithm – can do what a journalist does only better.

It’s all very John Henry versus the railroad.

Except in the world of journalism. I’m still betting on John Henry in the long-run.

As brands rush to publish content that will build their reputation (among their audience, in social media, in search engines and in the cultural zeitgeist) they, as we humans ironically tend to do, are looking for shortcuts.

Content is king? Great. Let me manufacture some for my audience.

Distribution is queen? Sweet. I’ll just repost this repost of a repost.

Engagement is everything? Nice. Hold on for a second while I rapid-fire burst these headlines a robot found for me at my audience.

They’re going to love it, right?

No. I think it’s more like they’re going to mark it as proverbial spam in their mental inbox.

Why? Because quality content is something you can’t fake. You’re not hawking designer handbag knockoffs, you’re providing a high-end service. Journalism, in its purest form takes a look at the whole world of events and figures out what is happening, why it’s happening, and why it matters to you.

Think of journalism as the ultimate bullshit filter. Great journalists have two things mastered: the science of understanding things and the art of explaining things.

And with that in mind, I’m going to attempt to redefine curation in a way that doesn’t mean regurgitation.

Here’s how I define curation (and by omission define regurgitated garbage):

1. Good curation means scanning everything.

Or, as Steven Rosenbaum writes in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Content NEEDS curation because of the sheer volume of unfiltered content that’s flooding the commons without any gatekeeper or objective organizer.”

2. And then, filtering out the bullshit.

I’ll curate another phrase from Rosenbaum here: “The world is awash in meaningless data.” Between press releases, advertorial, biased blog posts, poorly-cited infographics, lazy journalism and everything else posted to the world wide world, there’s a lot of stuff to glean through. Good curation sifts through this masterfully.

3. Once you’ve cleaned that up, it’s about evaluating what remains.

Here’s where the science of understanding comes into play. A good journalist is constantly asking the basics and probing for more: “Why did this happen?” “Whom did this effect?” “When will people feel the changes?” “How will this change the industry?” “What aren’t you telling me?”

This barrage of carefully calculated follow-up exposes lies, and shakes the party line right off the truth. That’s when things get interesting (and worth reading).

4. And then contextualizing it for your audience

So now you’ve got the unfiltered truth. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s cumbersome. It’s unwieldy. Should we just run with it? Sure, if you want to add to the chaos. But if you want to truly curate for your audience, this is when you whittle it down to the essentials and restrain yourself from dumping the unwashed truth onto your audience.

5. Then, and only then, is it worth sharing with your audience.

So you, share, get feedback and improve your bullshit filter. (If you’re looking for a buzzphrase, let’s call it the “perpetual cycle of embetterment”. The adaptation that has kept humans alive for centuries will keep journalists relevant for centuries more.

That’s my ranty reaction when the term “curation” is used irresponsibly. If we’re not careful, we could devalue this term into meaningless oblivion. But, if we take it seriously, if we treat it like a way of life, we can keep it as a useful word in the cultural lexicon. As an act of bravery in the face of overwhelming pressure to do more with less, to thoughtlessly publish and subject our audiences to more unfiltered torrents of stuff when all they wanted was the truth and some value.

This is not to knock the tools that are sprouting up in this space. They’ve got a ton of value. But they’re nothing without a smart brain connected to masterful hands who are making the tools work for them.

The tools should only allow curators (yes, people) to apply their big brains to solve problems for readers and in turn the world.

What does curation mean to you? Are you betting on John Henry or the railroad?

  • Christer Edman

    I am also using tacit knowledge and something is happening beyond my current awareness. This makes me feel curious for learning and why I use to say that I am thinking about thinking sometimes…