Curation Saturation, and Why We Might Need Information Friction After All

Brass Tack Thinking - Curation SaturationFrictionless.

It’s a word that’s taking root in some places to describe the ease of sharing things on the web, specifically through social technologies. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing.

Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut. Well, not so much a rut, really as contemplating what’s motivating and driving me these days. As we continue to build SideraWorks and frame out plans for that business, it’s clear that my blog here will need its own focus, separate from that of the work we’re doing in social business. I have a few ideas about where that’ll go, but the point is that all writers and thinkers take their inspiration from somewhere. Or lots of places. I’m no exception.

For me, it’s been by absorbing a lot of the information around me, both in the larger business world and the stuff that’s specific to my professional work and industry. That means I read a lot. And lately, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the patterns of sharing, who I pay attention to, and how information circulates on networks like Twitter, Google+, and media sites or blogs.

Curation And Noise

Being a “curator” is all the rage. But it’s become a practice – and a term – that’s completely diluted and distorted through an online lens.

To me – and by definition – curation requires conscious thought with the purpose of adding value, context, or perspective to a collection of things. It’s deliberate work, gathering things together for a reason and lending a keen editing eye to those assets, whether it be pieces of art or pieces of writing. There’s also an element of curation that involves preserving things, which is a more challenging proposition when you’re talking about the fleeting nature of the digital world.

Turning your Twitter feed into a clockwork-scheduled stream of all the stuff you find in your RSS feed is not curation, it’s distribution. And since collecting and redistributing content is arguably easier than creating it, everyone does it. Which serves to create a great deal of noise, and as we’ve lamented for some time now, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and home in on information resources that are consistently valuable, and favor mindful selection and sharing over optimizing a feed to populate a bunch of links and drive traffic or gain fans and followers.

Can curation be accomplished online? I think so. But it’s rarely what we actually see happening when we immerse ourselves in social networks, and it’s not what we’re doing when we click the “share” button over and over again.

Valuing Information

Back to the idea of friction, or lack thereof.

If we no longer have to do a shred work to find, share, or get information, do we value it as much? Do we appreciate the work that it took to unearth it, to research it, to create it? And how discerning is our eye for good, valuable, or unique content, let alone the kind of content that has the elusive power to truly drive changes in our thought patterns or actions?

The business case for curating content has long been that you can become an expert resource for others, a trusted source of information or expertise that sets you apart. But becoming a trusted source of information implies a willingness and ability to apply filters, to have exacting standards, to discern the good from the simply popular, the valuable from the gimmicked and hyped. Which requires work. A lot of it. Not just an app and the ability to put your collection and distribution on autopilot.

Finding the Good Stuff

My lack of inspiration these days isn’t anyone’s problem but mine, and I take responsibility for my own need to adjust my lenses and sources and do my own work to seek out and find the most excellent of resources for what I’m trying to do.

But I can’t help but keep wondering about the diminishing returns we’re going to get (or that we are getting) when this much-lauded lack of friction and everyone being a publisher means that…well…everyone is a publisher. Or a critic. Or a “curator”.

How do we preserve the value of some content over other content? Do we? Is there value in having to work a bit to find the good stuff, or is greasing the skids for the flow of content always the best possible scenario? If everyone is a curator or a distributor, how must our tools and thinking continue to evolve to help us find the curators of the curators? How do we continue to evolve our valuation of resources and information?

I don’t have the answers, and I most assuredly still believe that widely available information and choice and the openness of the web’s platform is a positive thing. But in terms of how I absorb and learn, it definitely has me looking around me more thoughtfully these days, wondering how and where I’ll continue to find the writing, thoughtful dialogue, and resources that help inspire me to do my very best work.

And it certainly makes me ponder whether this growing ease of sharing – our increasingly frictionless online world – will become yet another dent in the side of critical thinking and an incremental triumph of the lazy brain after all.

  • Jason Keath

    Devil’s advocate: Why is clicking the “the “share” button over and over again” not a form of curation? This is the model for Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. It is an active filtering of content for an audience. 
    True curation will accelerate when the type of automated distribution you are talking about here sees a diminishing return for the majority. Even then, distribution will always have value. 

    • Amber Naslund

      I didn’t say distribution didn’t have value. I simply said it was different than curation (which implies an archival value that we haven’t quite yet achieved I don’t think, and that most people aren’t really considering when they gather up content to push it back out again). And the ultimate point of the post is that whatever you call it, the ease of collecting, sharing, and distributing information I think makes us less thoughtful about it, and harder to find the real value. That’s going to be a huge challenge, albeit not a new one, but I think it’s going to have an impact on the glory we place on being “content curators”.

      • Jason Keath

        Fair points all around. 

        I think it comes down to quality though right? Is that not what we are really talking about?

        Whether curated, distributed, or created, the person the follows, circles, likes you is really only concerned about the quality of the experience/content they connect to because of you. I don’t usually follow people because they are a curator in my head (not saying that was your premise at all). 

        I think your point of being more thoughtful about the quality of what we put out there is an important one. But it is also, as you said, not a new problem. Maybe just louder than it use to be. 

  • Art Carmichael

    in the social media spaces, I dislike the autofeed method as it’s more anti-social than social and seems inauthentic in a social media environment.  That said, I have no problem with the ease of sharing via the like/tweet/+1 buttons so long as they’re being activated by a human and not by a bot. When you post something that interests you; you are sharing your interests with your friends/followers/circles/etc. and, thus, sharing something of yourself. I’m not so sure I would value those feeds if they were too narrowly curated. Most people I know have a wide variety of interests and, while I may share only a narrow band of those interests, they become, somehow, less human, if I only ever see the very narrow band of their interests that we share.  

  • Susan Gosselin

    Interesting thoughts, Amber.  I think  as it becomes harder and harder to blog, more people are falling back on just retweeting the first things they see.  You are right that there is too much noise.

    However, the reason I follow your posts assiduously is the perspective you bring to what you post.  If you’ve found something and thought it was important enough to share, that in itself provides value to me.  You’ve found a nugget of something good in the chaos.  This gets my attention.

    Now why is this?  Hubspot just put out a report recently that studied the difference between the top and bottom influencers in social media.  They noted that now EVERYONE has good content.  It’s not a matter of content anymore.  When I got over my shock and picked myself up off the floor, what they had to say made sense.  They said the difference was:

    1)  The number of channels you’re in
    2)  The level of engagement you have in each of those channels…really commenting and talking to people
    3)  Having influential people with good Klout/peerIndex ratings in your network following you
    4)  The amount of posts you make being optimal in each of your networks, and posted at the right time of day.

    Of course, having good original content doesn’t hurt, either.

    I think we are in a very interesting place with social media right now.  We’ve officially hit overload.  There are too many networks.  The industry is ripe for a major and disruptive consolidation…either for the networks themselves, or for some kind of good aggregation tool.  There are some folks that are trying out there, but no killer app yet.  In think 10 years from now, we’ll be looking back on this and saying “whew!  Can you believe we used to have to be in 10-20 networks just to be heard? So glad those days are over…”

    At least, a girl can hope…

  • AJ Kohn

    I think the real crux here is the definition of curation. You’re right, it is not about distribution. It is not just about sharing what you’re reading. 

    It’s not how much you read, it’s how much you understand and how you can connect the dots. 

    It’s one of the reasons why curation services based on social signals (Summify, Percolate, XYDO, KnowAboutIt) all seem a bit stale to me. There’s no context or opinion attached to those collections.

    Curation, done appropriately, IS friction.

  • Hugh Macken

    I think this is something Facebook, as a new media publishing outlet gets better than anyone right now, sponsored ads being an example that leverages the fact that we all consider the *source* above all else before taking action.
    In traditional media, one of the things that I think has gotten lost with all the bashing of traditional offline publishers is that they are not only in the business of distribution. They have always been in the business of trust and vetting trusted sources of information and commentary.That is a vale proposition worth investing in heavily in the coming years as the number of distribution sources skyrockets due to social media. I guess i might summarize it as follows – Content is King. Trust is Queen.

  • Zan McColloch-Lussier

    I differentiate curation from distribution by thinking about audiences. A curator, in my thought, finds something and then thinks of their audience(s) and their needs. Then you share it, but by giving it context that has meaning to your audience. I am followed on Twitter mostly by nonprofits looking to use social media better. So I take articles and such that I find and frame it to what’s important to that group. 
    I know I’ve been tempted many times just to share or RT something without context or explanation, but remember that my audience is already feeling overwhelmed. I need to tell them why I think this thing I’m sharing is valuable/relevant/fun to them. 

  • RobinGood

    you are right on the mark. Thank you for sharing and spelling out so clearly the problem. It is exactly as you say.We are seeing automated, superficial and uninformative content sharing being sold as curation and thus making the “noise” even louder than already it is. So, while who promises and instigates easy, no-worries easy curation by reposting anything that tickles your fancy, may crumble ahead under its own “noisy” and valueless proposition, those who really want to “make sense” of the content out there, helping others find what they are really interested in may actually have an easier time, as the herd is being misled somewhere else temporarily. :-)  

  • Amashelkar

    I mostly agree. Sharing needs a number of things to make it work for people. Firstly, it has to be shared with the right person or group of people and in the right context – context requires the content being timely, trustworthy and targeted (3 Ts). I find people responding favourably when all three criteria are met and sometimes such sharing can also lead to action. The hard part is the real-time discovery of those three Ts in a world where a 10 minute old tweet is history… 

  • rickjmiv

    Clearly your brain is not “lazy” – great post Amber and an example of why I consider you one of the real thought leaders. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    It’s so interesting. I find that a lot of times, when I am pondering something, you’ll do a blog post on it! 

    I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the publishing industry. I think the issue there is that there are so many “gatekeepers”–agents and publishers, and now there is a way around that. That means there is a lot of bad stuff out there, but there is also good stuff that no one would have access to otherwise. For example, a woman in my writing group wrote a great book–funny, well-written, strong plot. She has an agent. Her agent says she can’t sell the book (but could two years ago) because no one wants to read realistic fiction. I have grave doubts that this is based on actual research myself, and more about what’s selling now. But it takes at least two years to get a book to market, so who knows what will happen in that time.

    All in all, I think the movement is good, but it is a bit overwhelming right now. I think things will fall into place as we figure out how to distribute this stuff. 

  • Douglas Lee Miller

    Great post if only because it made me think a wee bit more about how often I connect services like GetGlue, 4sq, & Spotify to my social feeds – the information is easy to share, but what am I sharing? Value? Personality, sure. Good to get the right balance in the stream of personal and useful, I guess. 

    I also made a vow not to share any Mashable or TechCrunch articles in social feeds (though I have broken that vow more than once) as so many people already do, I don’t feel like I’m sharing anything anone can’t easily find in 700 other feeds anyway. I know that’s not something Mashable or TechCrunch would like to hear, but…

    I think you’re right about “greasing the skids” creating a proverbial slippery slope (to extend the metaphor a bit.) It makes me think of digital video and the way folks in my film production circles began to talk about the ease of access to digital tools serving to lower the overall quality and standards of the art. I felt at the time that the lowering of “artistry” was independent of content and was glad to see subject matter that might previously have been marginalized out of the picture, so to speak. 

    I think the same can be true with the other texts on the web. On the one hand, it is good to have an avenue for fringe content to bubble outward into a more public arena. After all, without dissenting voices where would our world of ideas be? On the other hand, we might go about it in a way that more efficiently makes use of the information/attention ecology IMHO… (or “infotention” as @hrheingold:twitter is apt to say.)

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Amber, I found this article through Scoop IT from a friend I trust (Fabrizio who liked your post), 

    Curation is like word of mouth, it helps you choose how to spend your time the same way it helps selecting a shampoo. The choice we have as information consumers is so huge that curators help a lot.

    I think distributors you trust too help when they share a content they RT Twitter or like on Facebook., They make you pay attention to specific resources.

    We have plethora of fabulous articles, great blogs out there and I don’t think that we are in danger of having knowledge scarcity soon :-) So a curator/distributor is a a person that do the job for you in the same way someone is writing a review about a book.

  • HotSpot Promotion

    This is something I’ve been wondering myself – on one hand as a social media manager I need to be constantly sharing the latest news and ideas, and yet I’ve been asking myself how much truly new stuff am I adding to the pot?  How much new value to I, as an individual, bring to the table?  Part of my work is sharing what’s already there.  Part of my work is creating new content, but lately, I, too, have been asking questions of value and focus, and challenging myself to find something new to bring to the table.  

    One almost needs a clone just to read and ruminate!  :)

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

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