My first job in journalism was working on what we called the “speed desk” at a wire service. In addition to jumping onto whatever breaking news was happening, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to produce summaries of news that other publications had written but that my outfit hadn’t yet covered. The summaries were written with two very specific rules: the original source had to receive full credit, and our summary had to — in some way — advance the story by adding some sort of context or additional detail. Simply re-writing someone else’s scoop was unacceptable.
We didn’t have a good name for that process, but it was similar to the effort now known as “curation”: the collection, organization and re-broadcast of the ideas of others. In 2012, curation is a key part of the information-processing cycle as we come to terms with the fact that there will be more devices connected to the Internet by the middle of the decade than there are people in the world. All of those devices are spitting out gobs of information, and sifting through that information has become a calling unto itself.
My colleague Aaron Strout outlined why curation is so important to companies last year, and there seems to be little chance that trend will diminish (a fact that the rise of Pinterest demonstrates).
As a result of the growing need for — and market for — curation, there have been increasing efforts to develop rules for making sure that the process of curation is ethical. The most recent is the “Curator’s Code,” a thoughtful way for bloggers and others to signal both the source of a story (in Twitter parlance, the “via”) as well as the person who brought it to the attention of the curator (the “hat tip”). The ethics is straightforward: as we collect and re-broadcast information, understanding where the information came from (and how it traveled) is critical in establishing credibility.
But for all of the attention the Curator’s Code has received — it was a SXSW highlight and was featured in the New York Times, among others — it set an unfortunately low bar for curation. Proper attribution is a noble goal, but it doesn’t solve one of the fundamental issues of content sharing in the brave new social world: it actually increases the volume of information we’re exposed to, because yesterday’s hot story on Mashable isn’t being published just by Mashable. It’s being RTed and Facebooked and G+ed by thousands and thousands of people, often with no additional context.
Which brings me back to that first job, curating for hours before the sun even rose. The fundamental rule that guided me then — add something of value — seems every bit as important as the “Curator’s Code” in ensuring that the benefits of curation (organizing information, broadening the reach of information) don’t degrade into just more noise.