When you were four, you imagined “engineers” as men in striped overalls who shouted “all aboard!” from trains. Later you learned that most engineers study more than just locomotives: mechanics, chemicals and even complicated structures like roller coasters.
Similarly, you pictured “curators” as snobby museum employees who talk about brush strokes and Impressionism. Today, however, curation encompasses a whole new catalog of professions, brands and tools — and most revolve around the web.
A curator ingests, analyzes and contextualizes web content and information of a particular nature onto a platform or into a format we can understand.
A curator ingests, analyzes and contextualizes web content and information of a particular nature onto a platform or into a format we can understand. In other words, a curator is like that person at the beach with the metal detector, surfacing items and relics of perceived value. Only, a web curator shares those gems of content with their online audiences.
It seems everywhere you look on the web, a different kind of curation is cropping up. Do you use Pinterest or Tumblr? Believe it or not, you’re a social curator — or you’re following users who are. These social platforms are as much about repinning and reblogging content from other people (curation) as they are sharing your own ideas (creation).
Take a look at your Facebook profile, at the types of articles you save on Pocket, at the list of subreddits to which you subscribe. Notice any patterns? Maybe you tend to share cat GIFs or Pocket news about the oil crisis. Sharing those interests makes you a curator.
The term’s sweeping definition has led some to criticize and attempt to narrow its use. Some believe “curator” to be a reappropriated, throwaway term, one that simply elevates marginally focused web users.Some believe “curator” to be a reappropriated, throwaway term, one that simply elevates marginally focused web users.
“Guess what? Assembling a group of tangentially related things and publishing them online does not make you a curator,” writes Mel Buchanan, the Hermitage Museum’s assistant curator in a blog post titled “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet.” [The link to the original post has since been disabled.] “So what does it make you? A blogger? A list-maker? An arbiter of taste? Sure, I’ll take any one of those. Just stop calling yourself a curator,” writes Buchanan.
But it’s hard to argue that some people are capitalizing on their curation talents. As founder of Brit.co, Brit Morin has successfully merged two seemingly disparate niches to form a new community: a site for connected crafters. If it sounds zany, think again. Turns out, some of the same people (primarily women) who churn out Pinterest boards by the barrel-full scramble the web for innovative DIY projects and digital lifehacks. Morin recognized that community existed, then fashioned a custom menu of content to serve it. Curation.
It’s also one of the reasons you’re encountering “lists” all over your Twitter stream or RSS feed. Think “15 Signs Your Best Friend Is a Sociopath” and “45 Cats Posing as Pinup Models.” Many in the media industry criticize this form of journalism, but in the end, it’s yet another form of content curation. Instead of googling “Mother’s Day gifts” and sifting through 22 pages of individual results, you can click on “15 Best Gifts for Sporty Moms.”
Some media sites choose to curate articles already published and reported by other sites. For instance, Boing Boing and The Awl feed links that reference news reported by other sites around the web, tailoring content that will resonate with their readership. Much of this type of curation requires a keen understanding of the web zeitgeist.
Others take a more scientific approach, in the form of data curation. People like Nate Silverproved that strategic data scraping not only lends itself to incredibly precise journalism, but to industries like graphic design, marketing, politics and much more.
More and more people are taking the reins into their own hands. Consumer curators are flocking to sites like The Fancy to browse products and silo them into categories, for example, “Things to Buy for Our Trip to Italy” or “Baby Shower Gift Registry.” Other curation tools, such as Pearltreesand Bundlr, aren’t as consumer-driven but nonetheless help users organize and structure web content that matters to them.
As much as the term gets criticized, curation requires patience, resourcefulness and a keen editing eye.
As much as the term gets criticized, curation requires patience, resourcefulness and a keen editing eye. It means becoming fluent in one particular dialect of the web, versus trying to speak its entire language. It’s the reason journalists have beats, and the reason you chose one major in college, instead of seven.
“I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable,” writes self-proclaimed “museum geek” Suse Cairns. “Some of our sector’s lingo is making its way beyond the walls of our institutions, and getting picked up by the mainstream in a positive way … If the hip and awesome are associated in some way with museums, great.”
Perhaps the best part? Curation is a never-ending job, and it never gets boring. Because chances are, you’re one of those contributing 684,478 pieces of Facebook content every single minute. Give us a break — that’s a lot of stuff to sift through.