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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Digital Curator in Your Future

Credit: Met by jesst7

Content: it's everywhere. Content is in your inbox, your feed reader, outdoor media, your living room, your pocket and, increasingly, on every web site you visit. It also increasingly resides on sites built and managed by your favorite brands, which are bypassing the media and going direct.

The democratization of publishing is without a doubt a revolution. When we're all dead and gone, the 21st Century will be remembered as a Digital Renaissance - one that rivals the original that preceded it by 700 years.

The Internet has empowered billions of people and is distributing their creativity across millions of niches and dozens of formats. Quality and accuracy, of course, can vary. However, virtually every subject either is or will be addressed with excellence - by someone, somewhere.

However, the glut of content as we all know also has a major downside. Our information and entertainment options greatly outweigh the time we have to consume it. Even if one were to only focus on micro-niche interests and snack on bite-sized content, demand could never ever scale to match the supply. Content is a commodity. The Attention Crash is real and - make no mistake - it will deepen.

Enter the Digital Curator. A curator, in a cultural institution context, is a guardian or an overseer. According to Wikipedia, he/she "is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections and their associated collections catalogs. The object of a curator's concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be inter alia artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections."

Museum curators, like web users, are faced with choices. They can't put every work of art in a museum. They acquire pieces that fit within the tone, direction and - above all - the purpose of the institution. They travel the corners of the world looking for "finds." Then, once located, clean them up and make sure they are presentable and offer the patron a high quality experience.

Much the same, the digital realm too needs curators. Information overload makes it difficult to separate junk from art. It requires a certain finesse and expertise - a fine tuned, perhaps trained eye. Google, memetrackers such as Techmeme and social news sites like digg are not curators. They're aggregators - and there's a big difference.

The call of the curator requires people who are selfless and willing to act as sherpas and guides. They're identifiable subject matter experts who dive through mountains of digital information and distill it down to its most relevant, essential parts. Digital Curators are the future of online content. Brands, media companies and dedicated individuals can all become curators. Further, they don't even need to create their own content, just as a museum curator rarely hangs his/her own work next to a Da Vinci. They do, however, need to be subject matter experts.

Curators are not editors either. The notion of an editor inherently implies that space is finite. Online it's not. Curators don't need to necessarily be trained in cutting, but in knowing where and how to unearth those special high-quality "finds" and to make them presentable. It's just as much about the experience and the way the information is presented, as it is the content.

If you look for them, curators are everywhere. Mahalo is a thriving community of curators on virtually dozens of subjects. The tech section of the New York Times web site and the My Times site, both of which highlight blogs, is another. Last but not least is the IAB Smartbrief. If you're interested in online marketing and have time to read only one source, this is the one to turn to because they curate.

As content universe expands and floods niches, there will always be a market for Digital Curators. The key for brands, individuals and media companies will be to identify those niches where they have deep expertise and to become the best in the world at serving them. I guarantee if you do this well and consistently, your long-term success is essentially guaranteed. And even if you do not have the energy to become a curator, you will certainly be influenced them.


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» A Call for Curators from AdPulp
Steve Rubel calls content a commodity and says the "Attention Crash" is real and that it's only going to get worse. Of course, he wouldn't say those things without offering a remedy. Enter the Digital Curator. Information overload makes it... [Read More]

» links for 2008-02-07 from One Man and His Blog
Micro Persuasion: The Digital Curator in Your Future Nice think piece on the rise of the digital curator - and how it's a distinctly different role to that of an editor. (tags: curator linking search discovery attention attentioncrash)... [Read More]


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Great post. I firmly believe that Delicious has the potential to be a curator. It just hasn't been tapped yet.

When our team fleshed out the vision for Lumifi, our focus was always on the problem that is so well articulated in this post. All of the world's knowledge is being digitized, but so what? If you can't find how the pieces connect in context to one another, you'll never know what you're missing - and you run the risk of your "exhibit" being either incomplete or simply not as great as it could be.

The idea of a Digital Curator is powerful, but we saw a lack of tools on the market that enable those information hounds and mavens a more efficient means of discovery, archival, annotation, and collaboration. The secret sauce is the application of semantic processing to search results, websites, and documents.

In this era of rich internet applications, it is possible to bring platforms that facilitate more creative uses of digital content than posting or indexing it.

Thanks for this post. I believe the the relationship between the 'museum curator' and the 'museum visitor' matters. The selected content is more than just information. It also says something about the curator. The more bond I have with the curator, the more meaning/ value the content gives to me.


I beg to differ about the idea that the Diggs of the world are not curators. With the voting systems that are in place, they are curating in a sense of the term. It's curator-by-the-masses, but curating nonetheless. Interestingly, if you compare it to the museum analogy, it would be akin to the front lawn of a museum littered with paintings, and anybody who happens to walk by being able to vote on which ones get the front entryway of the museum.

Then along comes a group of friends who all vote for a single piece of junk, and whaddya know, there it ends up hanging in the hall for everyone to see. :)

Not good curating, but I would say voting-enabled sites like Digg do perform a sort of curating.

@Todd C we don't need tools. We need people with time, expertise and passion.

@Chris Adams Digg really doesn't focus on quality. It's all based on popularity. Put in the museum context, digg is the local poster store, compete with Hannah Montana posters for sale. Mahalo is - or can become - the Louvre.

@ Steve Rubel So curators don't need tools to "dive into mountains of digital content"? How does one "travel the corners of the globe looking for finds" without a conveyance of some sort? I agree that curators need to be people with time, expertise, and passion - however - of those three only time is finite and measurable and therefore able to be optimized for efficiency.

DC - digital curator. What a brand to be realized. Thanks Steve for the insightful post.

Thanks for this. I am a Realtor (R) in Phoenix AZ and this is exactly what I try to do for my clients with my blog. There is so much noise and very little true information out there and if you aren't on top of it every day teasing the good from the bad can be near impossible. I appreciate your posts!

Before the curator can do his job,
I think the "Digital Archaeologist" must come in action.
In the long run, who will digg-up ;) all the old stuff,
buried beneath all these layers of new content?

Although standards based formats will help,
who will understand our content in the year 2100? 3000?
Who will find it?

These things require long-term vision...

Thanks for your "food for thought"!

I've been a curator for many years with Fast Company readers' network -- they used the title Renaissance Person first. This is a space where I feel very much at home. It's beyond knowledge management and an evolution of connecting ideas and people. Thank you for bringing the conversation to the fore.

Steve -- I was looking through Coca Cola's new blog the other day (http://www.coca-colaconversations.com/) and I thought it was interesting that the author is their historian/archivist instead of a marketing person. It's certainly a challenging role, but you're right, these are more guides than salesmen.

I actually wrote a brief post expressing a very similar idea (and using a very similar term) couple weeks ago; I do believe the "curator" needs to add value, needs to connect the dots for the rest of us to be entitled to that denomination. This is why this will be a very valuable role for us to watch for, engage with and empower.

I think this is part of a wider issue - namely who or what will mediate social media. This is a very important issue because it will determine social media will deliver the Wisdom of the Crowd or the Stupidity of the Herd. I wrote on this a while back http://preview.tinyurl.com/2qmxme In this post I was relatively optimistic about social media's ability to self-mediate. I am less optimistic now as I appreciate how difficult it is to preserve the conditions required to get Wisdom from the Crowd.

just to better understand the meaning you give to the word "curator", can WikiaSearch be considered as a curator community?

Don't you see that "these kind of web sites" could become only a "Market Place" for those interested only to promote (i.e. to be curator of :)) theirselves or their business?

Thank you Steve :)

Steve, I believe you got the point: today and I believe for a long time to go, the human factor is crucial. That's why the digital curator has to be a human being.

David Armano had a similar insight, with his role of Experience Designers (http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2008/01/infinite-touch.html) . Perhaps on a even bigger picture, we could see this rola a a Digital Architect, building the cornerstones of our culture, filtering the premium content.
Well, i guess we're back to the traditional media, sort of.

Thought-provoking as usual. There's an interesting historical and geographical aspect to this as well. Think of the digital time capsules that people will leave. Given GPS, your phone (or whatever it is called by then) will ring someday and a soldier will call you from the past with an audio message telling you how he fought a battle in this place you are now visiting on vacation. Another message with photos will come from a couple who got engaged on the beach your are sitting on.

This will create the need for digital curators of beloved places.

I wrote a blog post a while back on this particular aspect.


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