Curation. Look that word up on Google Trends to see its prevalence in searches over the past decade, and you can clearly see when it became important and how it has grown over the past few years.
The word appears to have made a big jump in late 2009, which was exactly the point in time that I first heard the word in my work and started saying it. As a member of the just-getting-started startup Get Satisfaction, I was one of a half-dozen or so dedicated compatriots who were trying to understand how best to build and grow online communities centered around un-tethered online customers and how the content in those communities should be organized. I'm not sure who said it first, or where it came from, but I remember when I really noticed it. Our new CEO, who was brought in to take over for one of our founders who had been serving as CEO (we hadn't really needed a full-time CEO as an early-stage start-up until that point), stopped during one of our brainstorming sessions. We were insanely good at brainstorming the days away, and when one of us said "curation," she stopped, tilted her head thoughtfully, and remarked, "Curation? Now that's a really good word. I hadn't thought of it in quite that way."
I see that moment in time (for me anyway) as the point at which the word "curation" gained extra currency. It wasn't just a term the small, insular group of us were using (too high-mindedly, I sometimes wondered) as shorthand for choosing what is valued and presented online above a din of less-important content and activity — the important bits of a messy conversation-based forum, for example. Hearing her say it validated it as something of a marketing term, a low-hanging fruit of the Zeitgeist, as it were, captured in conversation by a savvy businesswoman who saw that as a peg to hang our broader message on. Or at least part of it.
Curation was intellectual. It wasn't just picking and choosing and displaying. It had the academic weight of cultural heritage behind it. Curation is a historic and archival word. It's what highly trained people who run museums do. Isn't it just like the disruptive Internet start-up crowd to co-opt a word like that and trump up what they're doing to make it sound important and worthy of funding?
Fad, Fashion or Future?
This all begs the question: Is "curation" just a buzzword co-opted by Internet entrepreneurs and innovators? Or is it actually a better word to use to describe what we do digitally when we pick and choose from the Internet firehose, when we exclude some content and hold up other content as canonical? (There's another word for you.) Is there something about curating that is more thoughtful and considered than simply "promoting" or marking as "preferred" or even noting in our social networking interfaces as "popular"?
Yes, in fact. It is a better word. Curation suggests that a lot of thought went into the choices that are made before the content is ready to be shown to the general public. Curation intones an artfulness; it suggests that humanity is somehow involved; that some amount of craft or experience was put into the way that singular pieces of content plucked from the vastness of the Internet have been place into context alongside other important nuggets of found inspiration.
We used to call the people who did that type of work editors. (I used to be one of those people.) Now, we call them curators. Maybe the term "curator" simply means an editor who is unpaid. Or someone who cares enough to do it so that others may find excellent content and take appreciation in what's been done to organize it, and maybe even learn from it. Taken to its current online extreme — a great example being Pinterest — curation can sometimes seem like a grand theft of other people's property. The less-creative class putting its sticky mitts on an artfully and painstakingly constructed National Geographic-grade photograph of a lion sunning on an African plain and casually placing it in a 1 pixel black frame next to a trademarked $299 couch from IKEA — simply because the colors match.
Curation seems to happen when someone cares enough to make the connection between found things. When a real person, not an algorithm, not a dynamically generated result of a database output, steps in and says, "This thing is important because it is inspired by this other, more-important-or-just-as-important thing." Curation is one way of saying: I do not have all the answers, but I have something really compelling to show you based on all of these things I've found.
In a way, curation is what we do online as research, whether we do it as a Stanford business grad working on a killer presentation at 3 a.m. or as an Alabama housewife with 20 minutes to kill while our baby naps. We curate as a way to thoughtfully present things we find with the expectation that others will want to gather around and talk about what we've collected. It's a way to collect our allegiances and aesthetic choices in one place as a badge to show what we think is important.
But… Where is the conversation in all of this curation? Why are all of these people taking the time to build up their profiles and pages, these monuments to their personal preferences? Where is the community? Pinterest isn't a place for conversation. Should it be? Is curation just another form of one-way output, a more clever way of broadcasting things on the Internet? Does it channel some of the old-fashioned, thoughtful approach of museum caretakers?
Or is it just another way to share?