Sunday, 18 March 2012

Curation is not a dirty word

To this point I have read a number of people's writings rejecting the idea of 'curation' in its recent sense of selecting and sharing content using social media so that others can also use it. One person rejecting this new meaning was, in fact, a professional curator in real life. Others have just seemed to be somewhat bothered by the hype attached to a new expression for something that may, in fact, be not new at all. Or so they say. You get the feeling sometimes that they reject such a neologistic word usage because they struggle to vocalise their ideas on a phenomenon that is so recent.

There seem to me to be two distinct meanings for the word 'curation'. One is where people using social media post links to content that they like so that it is useable by those who watch their feed. The other pertains to the world of journalism, but it also relates to social media inasmuch as the idea is to monitor social media with a view to seeing how certain topics are dealt with therein. In this sense of the word, the journalist makes sure that he or she catches trends on social media so that their messages can be incorporated into stories. The idea was espoused recently by the Guardian in its Three Little Pigs advert. This form of curation would ideally make Guardian journalists more up-to-the-minute and informed so that their stories would more truly reflect common views on a topic. The other type of curator, the one who peppers their feed with selected items of interest, can be anyone at all.

There's a risk of annoying those people who baulk at giving credence to neologisms, but the nature of the information economy has changed so much with the advent of social media that some measure of newness can, I think, be pardoned. In labelling a person a 'curator' some things would be evident, or apparent, about their relationship with those who consume what they post.

While I was debating the topic last night I had recourse to an article by Bora Zivkovic, who is a blogger with Scientific American, in which he talks about the new information economy in the context of journalism and science writing. (I wrote about Zivkovic's article earlier this month with another object in view.) He talks about the "anomalous 20th century" during which public communication came under the aegis of large corporations, and these large companies began to prize "objectivity" in order to accommodate the wide range of views that their large number of urban readers held. Some of the things he wrote:
What is important to note is that, [before this time] both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone.
Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing.
[A]fter the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many.
With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust.
A curator's relevance within social media could thus be understood as a factor of the affect they project in the context of social media. I use the word "affect" in a way that is analogous to Zivkovic's use of the word "phatic" to describe language. He says:
Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker "draws the line").
And "affect" refers to the experience of feeling or emotion. For both words, the critical issue is their ability to describe something that we "like" or "dislike". The use of phatic language enhances the affect of any utterance, and makes it easier for the consumer, busy scanning his or her feed, to react to what has been posted. It facilitates comprehension. So if we see something posted by someone we like or already trust, we are more likely to click on the link they post. I think these ideas have something to do with the new notion of the 'curator' in social media.

Some people might say that professional communicators, such as journalists, have always been "doing curation". They read, understand, select for inclusion, reject as extraneous, synthesise, assemble, write, and publish. But this is only the second meaning of curation, although it still refers, when used these days, to something that happens on or around social media.

In parentheses, professional communicators might scan the social media feed for useful bits of information. But the realities that Zivkovic elencates as pertaining to the "anomalous 20th century" to some degree still constrain the journalist from projecting affect within social media. There is the matter of objectivity to consider for most journalists using social media. In this respect, journalists are to some degree circumscribed in their engegement online. They might want to engage more meaningfully with people online but there may be corporate policies that restrict the types of interactions they can have with others online. Or else they may be jealous of their reputations as professionals, and that might be linked, in their minds, to the notion of objectivity. But this arms-length stance vis-a-vis opinion is, says Zivkovic, at variance to the way communication occurs on social media these days.

Finally, I think it's necessary to say something about the extent of the pool of information available for consumers nowadays. It is immeasurably large but, at the same time, our appetite for information is unquencheable. You might have a person in Australia reading a tweet that a person in Kenya retweeted but that was originally posted by someone in New Zealand that contains a link to an article published in the United States about something that happened in the United Kingdom. Or vice versa. Today, access is limited not by geography, as it was during the first scientific revolution, but by a cognitive factor. We can read anything written in the language we speak. So you've got the Anglosphere. But you've also got the Latinosphere, the Russosphere, the Sinosphere, the Francosphere. And some people speak more than one language. It is this overabundance of information that makes the coining of a new word, 'curation', desirable and even necessary. Curation is not a dirty word.

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