Curation is Creation
The internet, at times, can seem like a desolate wasteland, stripped of enriching goodness and poisoned with the radioactive fallout of YouTube video commentary and page after page (after page) of adorable cat photos.
It wasn’t always like this, it’s said. Once, the web was a playground for the vox populi. A place where intellectuals posited grand theorems, and children could expand their horizons by seeing the world beyond their own backyard. Beyond their school grounds. Beyond what they thought possible.
I would argue it has always been essentially like it is now, and that the net isn’t as bad as it’s often made out to be.
Yes, it does provide fertile ground for some of the most mind-numbingly dumb ideas in the world, and yes, there are a frankly alarming number of adorable cat photos (not to mention baby sloths and musk oxen). But amidst all the cute and stupid, there’s also plenty of amazing, unique, novel, and mind-blowing media and messages to be discovered.
There is, in other words, wheat amongst the chaff, and the real problem is not that there’s nothing of value to discover, it’s that the signal to noise ratio is so extreme, discovering what you want can be incredibly difficult.
This is where curation comes into play.
Curation, in the traditional sense of the word, brings to mind galleries full of artwork and museums full of dinosaur skeletons. Libraries. Archives. A professional curator is in charge of selecting, collecting, displaying, and caring for/maintaining whatever sort of media is their specialty. They usually have some kind of degree (or multiple degrees) in their field, and are impressive people in the breadth and scope of their knowledge. I have a great deal of respect for them and the work they do.
Of course, ‘curation’ is a term that has taken on new meaning for the internet age, so a separate definition is in order.
‘Curation,’ for the purposes of this book, means the intentional identification, collection, (sometimes) repackaging, augmenting, updating, and sharing of content.
And these days, ‘content’ is about as vague a term as you can utter. Images, movies, games, collections of written words of any length; these are all content in the broadest sense. When someone speaks of ‘curating content’ and they don’t have some kind of advanced degree and a gallery or museum to fill, the definition expressed above is probably what they mean.
That’s not to say the modern incarnation of the curator can’t be as important in its own way as the classical model. Just as a museum curator must select from all the obtainable artwork in the world to determine what will be displayed in a given wing of their building, so must the art blogger determine which pieces and artists and openings to share with the world. Just as the art gallery curator must decide what lighting and hanging mechanisms are appropriate for a given show, so must the online style expert determine whether Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook or Tumblr (or a combination of all four) is the best platform through which to present a new line of scarves to her audience.
Curators, whether in the traditional sense or the online redefinition, are gatekeepers in an age when traditional gates are crumbling all around us. And theirs are gates we seek out because they can take us someplace new and exciting, in welcome contrast to the old type of gatekeeper, whose main priority is keeping out the riffraff.
Curators welcome others to see the world as they see it, and to experience whatever it is they’re passionate and knowledgable about.
As such, being a curator is a responsibility. It gives you a voice and allows you to display your expertise (whether blossomed or budding) and taste, while also potentially gaining the ear (or eyes, or pocketbooks) of multitudes.
Curation is a megaphone in that it can help you build an audience and a reputation. It allows you to express yourself, and to share that expression with others. It also allows you to take part in creation by assisting those who create.
By filtering and remixing and organizing and presenting others’ work, you’re presenting, in a sense, completely new work.
Think of it like a mix tape. You didn’t create the music, but in choosing the tracks and arranging them just so, you’ve told the listener something about yourself and something about the music. You’ve made something new from an assortment of finished works. And if you do it right, all three parties — you, the listener, and the creators of the work you’re presenting in this new way — stand to benefit from your curation.
CURATION AND CREATION
Curation is creation. Creating something that didn’t exist before, using building materials that are themselves finished work. And if you do it right, you’re adding value in the process.
It’s important to recognize that, just as not all creation is valuable, not all curation is valuable, either.
Look around the web and you’ll see what I mean: endless lists and photo albums and directories. Some are valuable to someone, even if not many people. Some are incredibly valuable to a large audience. Some will never be visited by anything other than search engine keyword bots; adding to the noise, rather than helping to break through it.
I never thought of myself as a curator until I attracted my first thousand followers on Twitter.
I already had a significant blog following by the time I started using Twitter in earnest, so I didn’t notice the numbers or appreciate their significance for months. So many people were subscribing to my real work, it was hard to take seriously the number of people following my social media updates, which were mostly links to things I found interesting.
At around the thousand mark, I realized a few things.
First was that most people would never reach a thousand followers. It didn’t seem like what I shared was radically different from everyone else; links and brief updates and such, but there must have been something different to account for all those digits.
Second was that there was real value for my own work when more people followed my social media accounts. Folks were sharing my blog posts and books with their own followers, and my words were spread far and wide. I started to receive messages from people I hadn’t spoken to in ages who had read a blog post I wrote after it was posted to their girlfriend’s Facebook wall. These networks provided legs my blog would never have, solo.
Finally, there were people who used Twitter and Facebook very, very intentionally. They had gazillions of followers and built their audiences almost completely on the strength of their social network reputations.
There was something to this ‘tweeting’ thing, and I wanted to figure out what it was.
As it turned out, the secret wasn’t much of a secret at all. Nor was it a marketing gimmick or trick. What these truly successful online personalities were doing that the rest of us weren’t was treating their feeds and timelines like products, not marketing channels. Their streams and timelines were curated experiences through which they expressed a distinct point of view or provided some kind of service.
Remarkably, not many people care about your opinion of a new movie, what you think of a certain celebrity, how good your food is, or that your cat farted. Your friends may care (or pretend to care), but such information isn’t relevant to many people beyond your primary circle of friends and family. The same is true with context-free selfies on photo services and videos of you insulting someone in your high school class.
Who cares? Who even knows who these people are? It’s like telling a stranger about a dream you had: the conversation is one way, and the person on the other end has zero reason to know or care what the hell you’re talking about.
Those who find success on social networks, and anywhere else one might share things, are those who share with a purpose. You may be the most fascinating person in the world, but chances are unless you’re famous already, no one will care what you have to say, if they even find you to begin with.
If you share more intentionally, however, and focus your sharing energies on, say, interesting scientific facts or the worst-dressed celebrities, there’s a good chance your work will find its way to those who might enjoy it. An audience who actually appreciates what you’re sharing.
For the past four years I’ve been traveling the world in order to discover and experience new things and explore different perspectives. I love to learn, and I spend hours a day reading books, blogs, essays, and anything else I can get my hands on. The only excuse I need to hunt down more information on a topic is that I find it fascinating.
I decided to focus my social networking efforts on the same, very broad, subject matter, eschewing gossip and crosstalk and other traditional trappings of social networks. Just to see what would happen.
My following bloomed. People were suddenly hopping aboard like I was the last bus home, and I started to receive messages from people who knew nothing about my other activities (blogging and writing books and giving talks and so on), but wanted to thank me for the great work I was doing on Twitter.
The great work I was doing on Twitter. It was bizarre, but revelatory. Social media could be useful. My links and commentary on interesting things I discovered was something others found valuable.
I discovered that my lifestyle provided me with an advantage: time to wade through a massive amount of media and share the ones I find to be most interesting.
By rummaging through the mess and sharing the good bits, I acted as a filter for the thousands of people who followed my tweets, which helped them find more of the kinds of blog posts and books and videos they enjoyed, but seldom had the chance to locate on their own.
Granted, not everyone has the same taste as me. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading about science and publishing and design and sociology and philosophy and myriad other things that may not be palatable to most (or even many).
But there are tools available today that make this process easier than ever before, so although my tastes may not be for everyone, there’s almost certainly someone out there who is spending their time and energy curating a feed full of media you’ll enjoy.
Curation is creation because it pulls new value from things that might otherwise go unnoticed; un-utilized.
Like television channels or radio stations, online curation allows audiences to find a channel and get more of what they love. And like TV and radio, online curation involves selecting the right combination of finished products to present in a new way; a new context, in a new collection, to a new audience, or alongside new insight.
I spend some of my time each day sharing links to the things I read. This is time with which I could be doing anything else, and I choose to spend it curating an ever-growing list of articles, books, essays, and other material I find interesting.
It’s a good question, and there are several answers for me, personally.
I curate because I believe in the things I’m sharing. I suspect they could enrich the lives of others the way they’ve enriched mine. The same way I’d tell a friend about a band I know they’d like based on my knowledge of their tastes, I share the good work I come across because I know what the people who follow me like. I know they like what I like; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be following me.
I curate because it helps build my audience. I’m an author, a blogger, and an entrepreneur. I live and die by the size and enthusiasm of my audience, and that means I’m at my best when I have many different ways to reach out and show people what I’m about; who I am; what I do; the kinds of things I produce and associate myself with. Curating is an excellent way for me to share something up front; to begin my relationship with someone else, a stranger, by giving them something of value (a directory of interesting things I’ve come across) for free.
It’s also an excellent way to show my expertise in certain fields. I’m well-read on many subjects, and I do my best to stay up to date on others I’m only now learning about. By sharing the best information I can find on these topics, I can show others I know what I’m talking about. This makes it more likely the things I share on those topics in the future (which could be my own work, or the work of someone else I want to promote) will be taken seriously.
I also curate because it’s an easy way for me to create value and share it with the world.
I spend a good portion of my day reading and researching and learning, and taking an extra ten, maybe twenty seconds to share an article or video doesn’t account for much of my time. Because of the tools I have available, my curatorial tasks don’t take much time, and the payoff is more exposure to more ideas for more people. A pretty good investment.
Finally, I just really enjoy sharing interesting things with other people. I’m the type of guy you either love or hate talking to, because any conversation you have with me invariably spirals into a long dialogue about some obscure moment in history, a new development in technology, or a metaphor for philosophy that gets way out of hand. I love to talk about the things that interest me, and the tools I use allow me to share these passions with others without missing a beat.
Ask anyone who’s taken the time to think about why they curate, and I’m sure you’ll get a slightly (or radically) different answer.
Some people focus more on the selfish pleasure they get from the experience of curating, while others do it purely for the profit, while still others prefer the non-monetary payoff they enjoy as a result.
Whatever your motivation, curate enthusiastically and everyone involved will end up better for your efforts.
FOCUS ON VALUE
Sometimes, the end results of a curatorial effort add to the noise, rather than filter it.
Of course, one person’s noise is another person’s vital information, but by wielding the tools of curation, you have ample opportunity to either further obscure the line of sight to greatness, or bring attention to something magnificent. It all depends on how you approach the practice, and what you bring to the table as a curator.
Most ideal is the would-be curator who approaches the craft with the intention of creating value. They ask themselves: what do I bring to the table? How can I best identify, collect, maintain, and present work deserving of recognition?
You could ask yourself what unique value propositions you bring to the table. In other words, what is it you in particular can add to this existing content? Do you have a level of taste in a given field that others respect? Do you have an existing audience from some other endeavor? Do you have critical skills that allow you to rank and critique and compile lists in a way that others find useful?
How can you make sense of the information being presented? As mentioned above, lists and critiques are one way, but how else can you sort and organize? Aesthetically (by color or shape)? By price? By genre or release date or actor or material or…what?
Can you add something to the information that isn’t already there? Metadata, for example, helps forever link an artist’s name to their work, and much of what’s on the internet (and many other distribution channels) lacks such paper trails.
Can you make connections between disparate pieces of work or data? Maybe show how a movie and a book by two different creators tackle the same issue in subtly different ways. Or show how fashion changed after a particular war. Tell a story that, before you arrived, only existed in bits and pieces. Be the glue that binds it all together. Make available to the world a more cohesive picture.
Maybe you can create new music from existing music. DJs put out albums made up of their own sounds mixed with existing effects and songs. Their contribution is the pacing, splicing, altering, and combining of their resource materials. What they present — what comes out the other end, after they’ve blended it together to taste — is something entirely new, despite being made up of existing, finished products. The same approach works with visual arts and interactive media.
Rather than being a filter, cutting through the deluge of nonsense to find meaning, maybe you’re the person who cuts through existing filters, popping the bubbles we all surround ourselves with to expose an audience to new things they wouldn’t otherwise see, hear, or watch. Experiences that are new to them, even if it’s old hat to others. Much like a zoo: you might see giraffes in your backyard every day, but to someone, living somewhere else, seeing a giraffe could be revelatory. It could change their entire world view.
Or maybe the value you add involves repackaging and replenishing old work. Scanning old volumes of Shakespeare and converting it into digital format, so millions might enjoy it, rather than the one or two who might chance to own the book.
You could be a kingmaker, publishing a literary magazine that shines a spotlight on unknown authors so a larger audience might be exposed to their works and points of view.
You could be an archivist, collecting works of any format to ensure they live on well after their creators have expired.
Or a librarian, curating work for the long-term, making as much variety as possible, as easy to find as possible.
Or perhaps you’re more of an analyst, amassing vast quantities of data so you and others might make more informed decisions.
There are as many variations on the title ‘curator’ as there are people. What’s important is remembering that if you’re able to identify from the beginning what you’re doing, why, and for whom, you’ll have a much easier time of doing your job, happily and with purpose.
For those who wish to make a living (or part of a living) from their curatorial efforts, there are many ways to earn money while sharing amazing work with an audience who appreciates it.
The following is a list of some of the more successful approaches I’ve seen, though there are as many different ways to make this work as there are people curating.
Some curators choose to give their work to the world for free, but ask that if you enjoy the things they collect and share, you contribute to their continued efforts with a donation.
This donation is sometimes a bit like a subscription (committing to give $5 per month, for example) and sometimes is presented as a one-off (if you enjoyed a certain post or collection, consider giving a few bucks).
Either way, donation-based systems are a bit of a gamble, because they assume you have an audience who finds immense value in your curatorial efforts, who have the money to spare, who see contributing to your work as a valid way to spend their money, and who are willing to jump through hoops to get money from their bank account to yours.
That last hurdle can be truncated, thankfully, if you ensure your site, newsletter, or other vehicle has easy-to-use-and-understand buttons. Payment systems will often allow users to either pay with a balance already in their account (if they sign in with PayPal, for example) or enter credit card information. Though they’ll have to enter their information either way, using a service that doesn’t require the loading of new pages during the payment process (like Stripe) eliminates a few steps (or at least seems less cumbersome for those going through the process).
Some sites have seen a great deal of success using this method, and because there’s no set price, your audience is free to give what they feel your services are worth. If you’re producing a whole lot of value, you could earn more using a donation button than charging a set rate, while also reaching a far larger audience (most of the people who see your work will get it for free, or free until they decide to contribute).
The big downside here is that donations seldom provide a predictable income, the way a subscription or having a reliable product for sale does. You can, however, stack the deck by consistently delivering amazing work as intuitively as possible.
This is a method that’s increasingly popular, especially for well-known websites and social media accounts that don’t want to be perceived as ‘begging’ or ‘selling out’ by their (usually large number of) dedicated fans.
Having a store is great because it allows you to sell to your audience in addition to the curatorial work you do, allowing the curation to stay pure in the perception of some, while products and services are made available to those who might want something extra.
The types of products and services to be found in such shops are varied, but you’ll often find t-shirts and mugs and other print-on-demand-able items. These are so common because they’re easy to set up and require little or no up front cost on the part of the curator. They can apply their logo or catchphrase onto a shirt, for example, and easily make $3-10 per sale without selling them for unrealistic prices or investing any of their own money.
On top of that, the printer in such a scenario generally handles the store, orders, shipments, returns, and everything else, making the shop a completely hands-off money machine for the curator.
You’ll also often find digital goods in such shops, like ebooks and online classes. This is because of the same economic upsides as print-on-demand type products: after you’ve done the initial work, you can keep selling the same product with little or no effort, upkeep, or expense. Write a book, make sure it’s good, then put it on e-shelves (and regular shelves, too, since print-on-demand services extend to paperback books). Producing any kind of product can take a great deal of effort, but it’s an investment that results in a long-term asset, so the tradeoff is a good one.
In some cases, a curator’s stores will also be curated. A style-centric fashion blogger, for example might stock her e-shelves with products she loves from designers whose work she’s shared. Through affiliate links (web addresses with little snippets of code in them) or coupons (which are customized for the curator to distribute to her audience), each sale is tracked and the curator receives a percentage of the profits. It’s a win-win situation, because the producers of the products get more exposure and sales, and the curator is able to support her own craft by doing what she does best: sharing great work she’s discovered.
Subscriptions / Paid Content
I’m lumping subscriptions and other paid content together because they tend to operate in the same way.
How this usually works is you make a great deal of your content, possibly as much as 95%, though perhaps far less, available for free to anyone who wishes to view it. This can be via a website/blog, or a free newsletter, and it allows you to build up a large following and reputation before anyone gives you a dime (the same benefit you’d get from the donation option, above).
The main difference here is, in addition to the free content, you also have exclusive content available only to those who pay a membership or subscription fee. For example, you might have a newsletter full of curated content that goes out to a massive list, alongside another newsletter with a more niche collection of content that only goes out to those who pay $5 per month.
Similarly, you could run a website where you curate the most beautifully designed book covers in the world, and anyone who wishes to pay $50 a year for a membership also gains access to a forum where book cover designers can discuss their craft, along with a larger gallery of book covers with critiques included along with the images, or online classes that teach how to design book covers (notice that memberships can work a lot like stores, or in tandem with them).
Some curators make their normal content available to the public for free and then sell a mobile app for phones and tablets and other devices which allows for more elegant consumption of said content for a one-time cost; usually a dollar or two.
This is an interesting solution because it only charges your audience once for what could be a far better experience, which in turn tends to make them into even more dedicated fans. When paired with some other type of monetization (like advertising, or a store), it has the potential to serve as a ‘gateway charge’ that pulls people even deeper after they’ve gotten a taste of the quality of your curation.
Keep in mind, though, that apps are growing so ubiquitous people expect a very high quality of product if they’re going to be wowed. It’s quite possible to spend a good deal of money building an app that fails to live up to the web experience people already love.
In short, don’t opt for this direction unless you’re certain you can design and build a truly amazing interface, or pay someone to do it for you.
Advertising / Product Placement
The classic means of earning money online (and in many other media), advertising is a mixed bag, with a lot of facets to consider before you invest too much effort in it.
First and foremost, would advertising ruin what you’re trying to do? Really think hard about this, because many, many well-honed brands have been ruined by introducing advertising at the wrong time or of the wrong flavor. If you’re curating images of the minimalist lifestyle, for example, it’s probably best to avoid using banner ads promoting the consumption of everyday clothing and electronics and such. Not only will people be unlikely to click and buy (resulting in little or no payoff for the marring of your site), you’ll also scar your brand with an image that’s asynchronous to what you’re curating and what your audience wants to see.
In that case, product placement might be a better option. Although it’s technically still advertising, by finding products that are more in line with your image and philosophy and then presenting them to your audience in a way that’s both elegant and intuitive, you stand a far better chance of not looking like a sellout, not ruining your brand, and maybe even earning some money. Which is good for you and good for the brands that are paying you (because your audience’s clicks result in attention and sales for them).
This only works if you find brands that fit with what you curate, however. In the example above, a minimalist lifestyle blog would be a terrible place for a Walmart ad (because it’s not a brand associated with conscious consumption), but a great place for an ad for a very eco-conscious, buy-less-but-better-quality clothing brand (like Everlane or Patagonia).
There are also plenty of quick-and-dirty options, like the famous Google AdSense and similar offerings. I would advise against these in most cases, unless you have hundreds of thousands of regular readers at the minimum, and ideally millions. Going that route is a numbers game, and your priorities become less about quality and serving your audience, and more about getting people to show up and click repeatedly before they leave.
It can take a while to find brands that suit your message and your audience, and that are willing to pay to advertise on your site/newsletter/social media feed. But if this is the direction you want to go, take the time. Waiting for the right advertising partners is far better than taking pennies from non-parallel interests and degrading what you’ve built in the process.
As Promotion For X
Finally, curation is an excellent way to promote something else you’re selling or offering, even if it’s not directly related to your curatorial hub.
Here’s how this works (ostensibly):
You provide an amazing service for your audience, curating something interesting enough that your follower or visitor or subscriber counts increase. People who keep coming back eventually wonder who you are, consistently providing such excellent recommendations/lists/images/whatever, so they look for more information about you. As your metrics (followers, blog traffic, etc) increase, others will wonder who this popular person or well-trafficked site or high-yielding newsletter might be, so they check you out to see what you’re up to.
The most important aspect of promoting anything — aside from curating quality stuff, of course — is your ‘funnel.’ That is, the path down which people travel when they start wondering about you and what you do, which will take them on a guided tour of your other offerings.
These offerings may include services. Maybe you’re a designer or web developer or wedding planner, and the things you curate relate to your craft (photos and analyses wedding gowns and decorations, for example). Your wedding-photo-curating Pinterest account can feed into your wedding planner landing page, earning you authority in your field because of your consistent, high-quality curating. New customers will assume you’re good at what you do even before initial contact is made.
These offerings may include products. Maybe you run a literary magazine, and you curate the best short fiction on the web. Same as above, your curatorial prowess primes people for your paid work, and they’ll be all the more likely to open up their pocketbooks (or PayPal accounts) to purchase work they can only assume will be good.
You can also become known for something totally unrelated to your paycheck-earning efforts, and benefit from what’s called the ‘halo effect,’ where those who think highly of you and your work in one context will think highly of you and your work in another context, as well.
An example of this would be an author who tweets about technology and writes historical fiction. There’s little crossover between the two (directly, anyway), but if he becomes well-known and respected enough for one topic, chances are his audience will give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to other unrelated topics and fields. Some of the thousands of people who follow the aforementioned technology curator on Twitter will certainly give the Amazon listing for his new book a look, and even consider buying it, simply because they respect the work he does elsewhere.
If you want to try this route, make sure not to over-advertise. I can’t tell you how many Twitter accounts I’ve unfollowed after their stream changed from interesting content with a little marketing sprinkled in, to mostly marketing with periodic content. Why would anyone follow the Twitter equivalent of a TV channel that only plays commercials?
There are many excellent ways to benefit from your curatorial activities that don’t involve the direct monetization of your work.
This can be a good option if you’re worried about introducing bias to your work (which is a very real possibility, if you’re selling the same types of products you’re reviewing, for example), or if you simply don’t feel right about mixing business and pleasure.
Of course, not all motivations behind curation are monetary. Promotion can be used to direct attention to a product or service, it could be used to instruct others on the right way of doing things, or it could simply be a way of sharing your views with the world.
Perhaps you’re a boating enthusiast, sharing news and photos of the most impressive schooners and hydrofoils; not for monetary gain, but because you want those who know nothing of such things (like me, before I looked up the words ‘schooner’ and ‘hydrofoil’) to have more information on a hobby, craft, industry, historical event, or whatever it is you enjoy; promotion of a body of knowledge, rather than something purchasable.
Or maybe you want to promote a cause; raise awareness of bad style or breast cancer by sharing fashion tips or inspirational stories of survivors picking up the pieces.
It’s probably no surprise that becoming a well-known or well-respected (or both) curator can do wonders for your network. Earn a name for your knowledge on a given topic, your level of taste, or method of presenting interesting stuff, and other people will want to meet you.
There are many stories floating around about folks who start fashion blogs, only to be contacted to write for big, fancy magazines, or sent tickets to Fashion Week. Same for the social-media-engaged citizens who are invited to NASA rocket launches, or the Twitter users who are handed money to talk about some product or another.
You can’t plan your way into opportunities, but you can stack the deck so they’re more likely to come your way, and so you’re prepared to take advantage of them when they arrive. Building an audience and reputation through your curation efforts puts you in touch with the right people, and ensures you’re known to even more.
Just keep in mind, if you want to make connections, you’ll need some kind of feedback loop so those who wish to get in touch, can. Just like the funnel I mentioned in the chapter about monetizing, you’ll want to make sure you have a channel through which people can find more of your work, more about you, or if nothing else, have a way to get in touch that aligns with your needs (something you’ll check and won’t mind using to respond).
For some, it’s as simple as listing your email address. Others prefer to keep conversation on social media, listing only their Twitter handles or Facebook pages. Still others take it old school and list a physical P.O. Box where their audience can send letters if they so desire.
Whatever the case may be, if you want to make connections, give people a way to connect. Otherwise, you’re just talking at them and missing out on potential conversation.
You Love Doing It
The best reason for curating is that you love doing it.
Ideally, this is a part of your motivation regardless of whatever other reasons you might have for investing the time to filter the world and present a well-curated body of work for public consumption.
I can’t keep the smile off my face when I’m able to share something I’ve read with those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter; people I’ve never met, and likely would never have come into contact with otherwise.
I get great satisfaction from sharing my findings with the world, because so many people have done the same for me (exposed me to new ideas directly or indirectly).
Look around at the most successful curators, and you’ll see the same in them: the users who have immense amounts of karma (measuring systems of value provided, given by other users) on sites like reddit and Hacker News; the curators of well-known sites and those who run small, well-respected literary magazines. Even the real-deal professional curators, in the traditional sense of the word, love what they do: find me an art museum curator who doesn’t geek out over the industry and craft, and I’ll eat my hat.
Even if you lack all other incentives to curate, if you truly enjoy what you’re sharing, you’ll be in a good spot. And who knows, maybe you’ll try some kind of monetary effort down the line, or maybe enough other opportunities will arise that you needn’t think about the money.
Or maybe you’ll just keep doing it for the joy it brings you.
All of these paths are equally legitimate, so long as you and the people on the other end of your efforts are getting something out of it.
GUIDELINES FOR CURATORS
In addition to Brain Pickings, Popova put together a manifesto of sorts called the Curator’s Code. She does an excellent job of explaining how she thinks curators should operate for the optimal experience for everyone involved, and for the long-term evolution of the internet, and I highly recommend you check it out. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably realize there are a few things you could be doing better, for the information you’re sharing, and for your audience, moving forward.
That being said, I want to share some of my own curation advice and explanations, which are greatly informed by the thoughts of Popova and other luminaries in the field, but also derive from my own experiences and considerations.
A key element in the craft of curation is attribution. And as the world becomes increasingly digital (and as the digital world increasingly becomes the go-to resource for information), it’s vital we know where a piece of data, snippet of information, pull-quote, photograph, or whatever else came from originally. Even better if we can trace the complete path of how it got to us from where it started.
There’s a meme going around the internet right now wherein you take any quote, maybe something famous, maybe something incidental, and attribute it to Adolph Hitler. The joke is that something may sound very wise or insightful, but as soon as you attribute it to someone as universally deplored as Hitler, it begins to mean something else entirely.
There are two reasons I bring up this meme.
The first is that improper attribution can change the meaning of information. What may have began as a stirring call to arms against hate might be turned on its head when spoken by a man who is the mascot for hate in the 20th century.
Knowing, and documenting, where something came from ensures you’re telling the whole story. It paints a complete picture, rather than focusing on some detail and cropping out the rest. It’s fine to crop, of course, so long as those who view your new work are aware of where it came from, and can trace the thread back to the bigger picture, should they need or want to.
The second reason I bring up the Hitler meme is that when proper attribution is given, it’s very easy to render such a joke harmless!
It sounds silly, I know, but there’s a chance that, if repeated frequently enough and in the right places, the permanent record (which in many cases is simply the most prominent or common instance of something) could be changed to actually attribute the words of great men and women to Hitler instead.
Provide a thread back to where you got the quote in the first place, and the original information remains intact, with the new art built atop it; a remix, if you will. But paint over the original piece without reference and it becomes far more difficult (and requires far more effort than the casual internet searcher is willing to exert) to uncover the truth.
All curators, no matter what media or space in which they work, add something to the media they share.
Sometimes this addition is as simple as a new context in which to present the work, and a new audience to present it to. This is the case with many social media-based curators who identify the interesting, package it up for their audience, and click ‘Share.’ The act of making the obscure more visible can be a valuable contribution.
Some curators add even more to the work they share. Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, for example, shares interesting work, then combines it with other work from the same artist, insight into how the work has impacted a given industry or the world, and links to related pieces in her archive and other archives around the net.
Still others add critique or contrast: remixes or revisitations. The idea here is twofold: you present the work the best way you know how, and you leave it better than you found it. The details in both cases are up to you, of course, but adhering to that standard — leaving the work you share better than you found it — is an excellent guideline for how to treat the materials you share, and allows you to change how it’s presented over time while still maintaining the proper reverence for work that deserves the attention you’re trying to give it.
There are some curators who specialize in identifying, collecting, and organizing the web, and like archivists working with physical media, this involves a great deal of filing and obsessing over the minutiae.
In the online world, objects like images are really just files that tell your computer what pixels to put where, and that’s not the only data contained in the file. You’ll also find information about the camera used to take the photo, who the photographer or model was, and other things of that nature.
But this data, called metadata, doesn’t get there on its own. It’s added by the original artist, and sometimes dedicated curators of such work down the line.
In the photography world, especially, this metadata is of vital importance because it’s sometimes the only evidence a particular photo was shot by a given photographer (short of watermarks, which some photographers eschew because it can mar their work).
Unfortunately, it’s quite easy for this data to become lost in the shuffle, as well-meaning curators download and repost and resize and resave and otherwise manipulate the original artwork to suit the (again, well-meaning) needs of however they’re planning to share it with the world. They generally don’t realize they’re stripping away the original artist’s digital signature; an artist whose work they’re trying hard to share with the world.
The solution is to ensure that when you share something, you leave the included metadata intact wherever possible. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can do a little research and include even more data in your shared version of the work. This may be an image title that includes the photographer’s name, while the image file you found included nothing but the name of the piece. Maybe a click-through link to the artist’s website, so those wishing to see more of her work can access it easily. Just make sure the information you include is accurate!
The collection and creation of metadata ensures the root system underlying the internet remains intact. This system is the trail of breadcrumbs that allows future explorers to see where it all started, and stop to explore what changes were made at any point along the way.
Adding to that root system makes the environment even more stable and resilient, and makes it more likely you’ll come up with information that’s both factual and complete any time you fancy a stroll through the history of a piece of media that catches your interest.
As a creator of things, I understand the frustration other creators feel when they find the work through which they make their living has been taken, replicated, and made available for free online.
It’s a reality of the creative world, of course, and although I’ve come to terms with it (and adjusted my mindset and way of doing business accordingly), it’s still a big slap in the face to many people who spent significant chunks of their lives slaving over something amazing, only to have it pilfered and uploaded as a torrent or free-to-access media.
I’m not going to get into the ethics of digital piracy (that’s a completely different book, I think, and something I have mixed feelings about), but I will say as a curator it’s important you avoid stealing at all costs, lest you find yourself hurting rather than helping the very people you’re hoping to cast a spotlight upon.
The same is true for ‘casual curation,’ like the sharing of quotes or other tidbits from people’s work. It may not seem like a big deal to post unattributed pull quotes from a book you just read, but consider that the value in your quoting is not just in the context in which you’re using it, but also in giving your audience the opportunity to trace those words back to their source, so they might glean additional information about the person who spoke or wrote them, and context beyond that in which you’ve shared it.
Stealing as a curator, then, doesn’t just mean downloading a pirated movie or ebook, it also means taking and repeating ideas without pointing back at where they came from. Just like in school where you had to turn in a bibliography with your research papers, you and your audience and the people whose work you share are all better off if you give credit where credit is due.
Thankfully it’s much easier now, online, than it ever was in class. An RT (‘retweet’), HT (‘hat-tip’ or ‘heard through’), via (‘this came from’), link-back (a link to the original source), or Curator’s Code icon will do just fine.
It’s also best to avoid republishing, repurposing, or reusing other people’s work without asking.
Though you may have the law on your side when you wish to share something created by someone else (fair use and all that), it’s frankly just good manners to ask the creator beforehand, and figure out a way to make it work. Not only does this ensure you have the creator’s blessing, it also ensures you don’t accidentally become a predatory sharer; someone who republishes others’ work for the sake of ‘creating content,’ rather than to produce something of value.
Default to Helpful
In life and in curation, it’s best to default to helpful.
What this means is that you do your best to share accurate information, present things people will find interesting or valuable, act as a creative member of the intertwined network of the web (rather than a destructive one), and serve as an access node to subsections of the world’s knowledge.
It sounds very big, I know, but all I’m saying is that you should formalize what you’re doing as a curator by recognizing that what you do is help people. You’re seeking, identifying, upgrading or changing, and delivering something new with the original found item intact alongside it. This is an incredibly valuable service, and focusing on this aspect of your craft makes going the extra mile — say, to add some metadata to work you’re passionate about, or compile a solid list of your favorite whatever — a far easier proposition.
Be the person who not only knows a lot about a lot, but who is willing to enthusiastically share what they know in a way that will benefit as many people as possible.
The following are quandaries to ponder as you dive into curation, in regards to how you approach the craft, and also how you shoehorn curation into your life and other activities.
What do you want to accomplish?
It’s important to establish early on what it is you hope to achieve in your curatorial activities. By honing in on your true motivations, it’s far easier to make a plan, establish the right habits, evolve as you discover superior methods, and continue to accomplish what you want to accomplish, even if you end up doing so in a different way than you originally planned.
For example, if I’m a railroad enthusiast who wants to educate the public about the glorious world of railroads, trains, and the like, I may start up a Twitter account dedicated to the topic.
A few months later, I could experiment with a Tumblr account, collecting famous quotations, GIFs, images, and maps related to the noble world of the rail. If I find, after a bit of work, the Tumblr account is giving me more access to a larger audience of people who know nothing about railroads, and is providing superior means to communicate with them, then a changeover is in order. I may stop working on the Twitter account and refocus my attention completely on Tumblr.
This example is a success, not a failure, because my prime motivation was not to create a successful Twitter account about railroads. My goal was to share something I was passionate about (trains) with a large number of people who had never been exposed to it before. As a result, I was able to change my methods and tools and platform when I discovered there was a better option.
Take the time to hone in on your real motivation for curating and you’ll avoid being locked into a particular network, set of tools, or platform. Keep up to date on your options: it may be that a superior approach already exists, and all you have to do is find it.
Who is your audience?
This is an important question for anyone who creates or builds anything, and curators are no different.
It can be a difficult question to answer, because your actual audience may differ from your intended audience; a fact that some curators fail to notice due to lack of metrics and stats, or by simply not considering that there may be others interested in what they’re putting out into the world.
There are many ways to figure out who’s already listening to what you have to say, and the simplest is to ask. If you’re curating primarily through a social network, talk to the people on the other end; those who are following you. Take a look at their profiles, and try to figure out what demographics are dominating your roster. You can also do an informal roll-call, asking people questions or simply asking them to introduce themselves. I find the latter method works wonders in solidifying a disparate group into a community: the more you know about them, and the more they know about each other, the easier it is to find commonalities.
If you’re curating through a website or newsletter, you should have access to some kind of analytical information, either through third-party services like Google Analytics, or a baked-in measurement system that can tell you about who’s reading or watching or listening to what you’re sharing. Don’t let these metrics overwhelm or own you, but do take a look from time-to-time and take note of major changes.
Once you know who’s following your work, you can decide whether or not to make changes to better serve your audience. Let’s say you’re operating a Harry Potter fan-fiction website, and you find a large number of your followers are also fans of Dr. Who. This knowledge gives you some options; maybe you expand your offerings to provide the best curated fan-fiction for Harry Potter, Dr. Who, and several other popular fictional worlds. Or maybe you start up a sister-site for the Dr. Who enthusiasts to enjoy. Or maybe you ignore this information, because you don’t particularly care for Dr. Who, and the folks who do clearly enjoy Harry Potter as well, or they wouldn’t be regulars at your site.
These are all viable options, and what you do with the information gleaned from your analytics comes down to what you hope to accomplish.
Where do you keep it?
Or, asked another way: where is your library housed?
A library is an excellent metaphor for anything you might curate, because ideally you’re creating something that’s useful beyond an individual link or post; you’re creating something that adds value and information to things that are already valuable and informative.
Like many of the concepts we’re discussing, there’s not really a wrong way to approach this, but there are some ways that tend to be a little more right than others.
Consider, for instance, that Twitter could collapse one day. Maybe they’re hacked, maybe a comet hits one of their main server farms; whatever the case may be, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Twitter is no more.
This would suck, because I love Twitter, and have built up a large audience there. It’s where a great deal of my curatorial activities take place, and is a platform through which I’m able to produce immense value with very little effort. What am I to do?
To prepare for such a scenario, I’m diversified in my online footprint. I have my Twitter account, yes, but on that account I’ve also provided a link back to my blog, which ties to my project page,my Facebook page, my Instagram account, my Tumblr, and has a sign up form for my newsletter. Each of these locations, these home bases, also links to all the others. And the things I curate on Twitter are also posted to my Facebook page.
This means if one of my platforms were to be burnt up in a fire, destroyed by a comet, or simply goes out of vogue, I still have other platforms where my audience can find me and continue to follow my work.
Diversification of this sort will look different for every person who does it, because we all have different passions and methods and formats we focus on more than others. But if Instagram is your jam, it might be smart to post on Flickr and Pinterest and other photo sites that provide sufficient tools for you to curate seamlessly to them, along with your more familiar platform.
Not only does this prepare you for the worst, it also helps build up your audience. Suddenly you have access to different demographics (maybe the photographers on one site are mostly pros, while the ones on another are mostly amateurs, shooting with their phones) and different groups of people (many of the people who follow me on Twitter, for example, don’t follow me on my Facebook page; they tend to be denizens of one platform or another).
Be platform agnostic and experiment with all options as often as possible.
How does this fit into your day?
I can tell you from experience, unless you’re a professional curator making fat stacks for your curatorial efforts, it’s best to ensure finding and packaging and sharing wonderful content fits into the rest of your life.
For most curators, their work is the product of passion, not profit; but either way, it’s ideal to figure out a routine or a rhythm that seamlessly melds with the things you’ll be doing anyway, and which doesn’t interfere with your pursuit of a happy life away from the photos, videos, writings, and other things you might obsess over much of the time.
Part of making this work is adopting the right tools for your media, platforms, and style, but your habits are just as important.
My curatorial efforts revolve around my personal reading habits, for example, and I spend time each day just cruising the web and reading ebooks, looking for interesting anythings to glean inspiration from, and to expound upon in my own creative work.
As I read and click and search, however, I have a little button in my browser I can tap which shares whatever I’m looking at with my audience, across any of the networks I’ve given permission for it to work with. Similarly, if I’m reading something on my Kindle, it’s just a quick couple of taps toautomagically share some clever turn of phrase or interesting bit of information with the people I know will enjoy it as much as I did.
In this way, curation has become a fairly reflexive activity for me. I don’t even have to think about it anymore, and as such I’m able to continuously share the best of what I find with people who appreciate my doing so. My only investment is a few seconds here and there, to ensure the bits and bytes are sent off in the right direction, and include the right metadata.
Come up with a routine like this; one that doesn’t interfere with your passions, or your life as a whole, and you’ll be far more likely to keep up with curating.
In other words, build positive habits by figuring out how you do what you do, breaking those component activities into processes, and then making as many of those actions automated as possible.
This will be trickier for some people than others, especially those who add a great deal of metadata, critique, or other additional layers to the work they share, but it’s still possible to take much of the busywork out of the equation so you can focus on the important matter at hand: presenting something wonderful to people who will appreciate it, and doing so in the best way you know how.
Who are the gatekeepers?
Here’s something to think about: who acts as gatekeeper in your curatorial world?
Is it a taste-dictatorship, where you decide what gets shared (like with a personal style blog)? Is it a community-driven effort (like in a forum, where content is submitted then voted to the top)? Is it a combination of both (like on a site where content is submitted, then combed through by an expert or two before anything is posted)?
As a curator, you’re taking on the role of gatekeeper, and that’s a huge responsibility. Your audience trusts you and what you share, and that means you can make or break careers, and give information that’s factually accurate or dubious. You have a voice and a potential audience. That’s a big deal.
Depending on your scale, and the type of content you curate, you may work alone, or with others, or you may open things up to the wisdom of the masses.
Regardless of how you’re organized now, consider the alternatives and make sure you’re optimally sifting and sharing. It may be that you’d get better results by sharing your gatekeeper responsibilities with others. Or perhaps opting for a one-sided, independent perspective would be more ideal for your style.
How often to publish?
Another consideration, along with how curating fits into your day, is how often you publish and share with your audience.
I’m addressing this separately because apart from lifestyle considerations, this also impacts how frequently people visit your blog or profile, or how often they receive your newsletter. It determines how ‘on’ you need to be to produce the volume of content required. It also sets a pace your audience will come to expect; if you tweet thirty times a day, then suddenly jump to one hundred tweets (or fall to only two), people will notice and wonder. They’ll potentially get annoyed at the frequency, or be curious if you’re still alive.
Experiment with frequency, then settle on something that works. Continue to experiment with alternatives from time to time, but try not to fluctuate too greatly (outside of an overhaul), lest you give the wrong impression or annoy those who crave some predictability in your offerings.
Exhibition or permanent collection?
Like in a museum or gallery, the work you curate online can be presented as an exhibition or as a permanent collection.
An exhibition assumes the pieces you’re curating are meant to be temporal; of the moment, and more transient than concrete. Social media posts (like those found on Twitter) are a good example, because they’re not presented in a format that’s friendly to those wishing to view everything you’ve ever presented. Another example is a set of links and images shared in a newsletter.
A collection implies you’re building something over time, and that all new work shared builds on a foundation of older work. An example of this is a site aiming to produce a cohesive archive of book covers, or a site like Brain Pickings. This method allows you to link to past posts and shares quite easily, and gives you the opportunity to remix and package your curated materials in many different ways.
Temporality is good because it gets people’s attention, and permanence is good because it creates something concrete and long-lasting. In many cases, combining the two is even better than focusing on one or the other. You could build up a home base over time and send out a weekly newsletter that includes a choice collection of photographs. You could tweet each new selection, or compile easy-to-share digests that people can pass around.
The opportunities are myriad; it’s just a matter of deciding how you want to approach either side of the coin, if you do indeed want to try to achieve that balance.
Niche or broad?
Something most curators who attract an audience have to mull over is whether to be niche or broad in their focus.
Say a blogger becomes well-known for her collection of tattoo images, and the audience for non-traditional, high-quality ink seems to be bigger than the one for folks who prefer old-style anchors and hearts.
This blogger has an opportunity to become the voice in modern, artsy tattoos, should she choose to refine her focus and leave out the more traditional stuff. The risk, though, is that in losing the anchor-preferring portion of her audience, she will lose numbers, and possibly reputation, which she will never recover.
Similarly, someone sharing images of cabins on Instagram may find a few random pics of non-cabin architecture he posted are really killing it in terms of views and likes and feedback. He may decide to widen his focus, giving him access to a larger audience while risking his existing one: there’s always the chance they’ll be put off by his non-cabin photos and start to unfollow his account.
Pay attention to your audience and seriously consider these options when they arise. It’s possible to stay your course and still scale, but the big jumps tend to happen when you notice a trend and take advantage of it; so long as you enjoy the new direction as much as the old one, it’s one of the better ways to produce value for a larger number of people with about the same amount of effort.
What are you sharing with your audience?
This is a question that’s quite easy for some people to answer, and far more difficult for others.
I have trouble answering this question concisely, because what I curate is not easily categorizable. It’s a collection of interesting tidbits of all different flavors, ranging from sociological studies to charts and graphs to design books to scientific discoveries to treatises on non-standard sexual arrangements to just about anything else that catches my interest. That’s the red thread which runs through everything I share: I find it interesting.
There’s no ‘Things Colin finds interesting’ category in your local library (their loss), so this is a tricky genre to communicate.
Alternatively, some people are very focused in how they curate.
Literary magazine editors, for example, look for very specific things in the short fiction they choose to share. Tech writers tend to retweet posts about technology and gadgets, while philosophers share quotes related to the pursuit of meaning.
You needn’t work within an established category in order to succeed as a curator, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s a good idea to define what it is you curate, if possible, so you can explain it to others.
If your work fits cleanly within a mainstream genre, excellent. Own it. If it doesn’t fit into a well-defined category, try and explain your particular hue to others using other categories as ingredients. For example, you might say you share things related to celebrity gossip and global politics (which are almost the same thing, in many cases). Or you might say you focus on the human condition.
The following is a selection of curation tools I make use of, or have used in the past. This is in no way a comprehensive list, and there are wonderful new tools emerging every day. If you don’t find something you like here, I recommend searching the web for keywords like ‘curator tools,’ or if you’re wanting something Pinterest-ish, but are not a fan of Pinterest, search for ‘alternative to Pinterest.’
A combination blog platform and social network, Tumblr is built for curation, allowing users to pull media of all flavors from all over the web and display them on a highly customizable page.
Tumblr is free to use.
One of many email newsletter services out there (but my favorite), Mailchimp provides a vast array of tools for those wanting to curate directly to their audience; your work delivered to their inboxes, rather than somewhere on the web.
There are multiple levels of service, and the costs increase precipitously once you acquire many-thousands of users. But they do offer a very generous ‘forever free’ plan below a certain number, and for what they provide, the pricing is still quite reasonable.
A dashboard for your social media activity, Hootsuite allows you to view streams from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many other social networks, all in one place.
It also allows you to post and share on these different networks in one fell swoop, making managing multiple networks a snap. It also allows you to use the marvelous Hootlet.
Some advanced options (like allowing multiple people to manage a social media account, or having more than a few streams displaying in your dashboard) require a premium to access, but the cost is quite low (I easily get by on their $6/month plan), and it’s a much better option for what I do than the alternatives (though there are many, if you don’t like how Hootsuite looks or functions).
Useful for keeping tabs on different subjects and collecting relevant content from disparate corners of the web, Google Alerts allows you to receive notifications any time the web giant’s spiders crawl across keywords you tell it to watch for.
You can even tell it what kind of media to watch for, so if you’re interested in videos and images but not text, it can handle that. You can also tell it how many selections to send you, and how frequently.
Like most of Google’s services, Alerts is free.
There are many ways to store bookmarks, but I do it directly through my browser (at the moment I primarily use Chrome, though all browsers offer this functionality these days).
It couldn’t be simpler: you find a website you like, click a button or menu option, and it saves the address for future reference. I maintain a bookmark bar with my bookmarks divided into areas of interest, so when I’m looking for new, interesting things and I’m feeling like a longer nonfiction read, rather than a short story, I have an array of options at my fingertips.
Bookmarks are as free as tools get.
Less popular than it once was (ever since Google dropped its official support for Feedburner, which was formerly the best and largest feed-management tool available), RSS (short for ‘real simple syndication’) is still a powerful tool. It allows you to essentially export your posts (on a blog, and in some cases, on social media or a newsletter) to a stream of code, which is then read on the opposite end by a feed-reader or email recipient.
What this means in practice is that your audience can click a button and receive your updates however they like, without having to visit your blog or other hub to do so.
Again, this is far less influential in the online world than it used to be, but there was a time when a well-manicured RSS feed was everything, because everyone used them to read their favorite sites. There are still those who continue that tradition, and if your audience is among them, best check out the aging Feedburner or the new kid on the block, Digg Reader.
Most RSS tools are free, though some of the fancier feed readers (with accompanying fancy apps) may cost a few bucks.
I’ve never been a big fan of Twitter Lists, but some people swear by them, and I’ve had people tell me they heard about me and my work because someone decided to add me to a Twitter List.
The way these work is a Twitter user creates a list and adds people to it. Anyone who follows said list would be able to see a separate stream that’s an aggregate of tweets from the people on the list.
So say I wanted to make a list containing my favorite science fiction authors. I’d start a list and call it ‘Science Fiction Greats,’ then start adding the authors to the list. From that point forward, anyone who follows my Science Fiction Greats list will see those authors’ tweets.
Twitter is free (and a free for all).
Owned by the popular comment service livefyre, Storify is an interesting creature in that it allows you to curate a selection of information and media from around the web into a story package, and then share that story wherever you like.
I see this used most frequently in news or gossip stories that involve someone saying something on Twitter: news sites will pull the actual tweet from Twitter onto their site using Storify or something like it. In this way, they’re able to tell you the news, show you the social media evidence, pull in a related photo or video, and publish the whole thing on their site while also making the entire story sharable by others.
Used in a clever fashion, this can be a very powerful tool. And it’s free. A very similar collection of services can be found in RebelMouse.
Website addresses can be cumbersome, and URL shorteners help to alleviate that problem by producing a very short web address that forwards those who click it (or type it directly into their address bar) to the longer address you enter.
These were a big industry for a while, but I mostly see them built in to other services these days.Hootsuite, for example, has a shortener it uses when collapsing your links to a manageable size (ow.ly) and StumbleUpon uses a shortener, as well (su.pr). Bit.ly is a stand-alone service used by a few networks, and even Google has one, though it’s a bit longer than its competitors’ offerings (goo.gl).
Note that in addition to the size-benefits offered by URL shorteners, most services gather data about the links funneled through them, so if I shrink a link using Hootsuite and post it to both Twitter and Facebook, I’ll be able to see on my dashboard how many people clicked the link, on which service, and things of that nature.
URL shorteners are available for free as part of other services, and as paid, custom jobs (you can buy your own short link, for example, and use it the same way these other services do, though it may cost you a small fee per month if you want something other than an open source option).
I group these networks together not because they’re the same, but because the broad considerations you must take for each are quite similar.
In short, each of these services is a social network owned by someone else. Each one is free, and as such, you are the product; they make money from you being there, by displaying ads to you and using your data (and sometimes identity) to earn money. It’s up to you how you feel about this state of affairs — most people don’t really care, while some are adamantly opposed to it — but it’s important to know how you feel ahead of time, before you invest too much effort building up an audience on a platform you don’t own (and it’s important to consider that any one of them could disappear at a moment’s notice, and there’s not much you can do about it).
That being said, these are incredibly popular sites, and very useful as curation tools because of the massive audiences they serve and tools they provide free of charge. In many ways, the curation tools provided by these and other sites like them are defining what curation looks like today, so even if you don’t use them, it’s probably smart to hop on and become familiar with the tools; who knows, even if they don’t grab you from the get-go, they could be useful down the line.
Pinterest and Instagram are focused on the sharing of images, with the former allowing any proportion, and the latter limiting you to a square (and popularizing one-tap filters).
Facebook is a network that operates more like a phone book, in that everyone is on it. Though it’s rumored to be on the downswing, it’s still far more populous than any other option.
Twitter allows the posting of all kinds of media, but focuses on short, snappy text-based messages. It’s also an amazing tool for getting news and other updates on the fly, as they occur.
As I mentioned, all of these services are free, though I should warn you that if you start a page on Facebook, you can earn ‘likes’ and build an audience, but your posts will not reach all of your fans every time you publish. In order to reach more fans, you have to pay; otherwise, your message will only be displayed to a small percentage of your audience each time you publish. And yes, I know, it’s a really tool-ish move on their part.
Originally called del.icio.us, Delicious was once a massive online depository for interesting links, link lists, and related tidbits. It was bought up in 2011 and relaunched that same year, in an effort to regain some of the startup-style agility it lost over the years, and reposition itself for the new online environment.
These days, it’s much lighter-weight, and still a useful place to curate a list of interesting things. It lacks some of the robustness of the other social networks I’ve mentioned, but it is meant to focus on curation rather than just sharing and being a part of a network, so it’s still worth checking out.
CURATION DONE WELL
There are different types, scales, and approaches to curation, and within each sub-genre, there are individuals and companies that stand out.
The following are examples of the directions curation can take you, the scale your work could achieve, and what’s been done before (so that you might do even better).
Founded by Maria Popova in 2006 as an email newsletter, the modern incarnation of Brain Pickings is dedicated to being a ‘human powered discovery engine for interestingness,’ and it boasts millions of readers per month and a few hundred thousand subscribers on a mailing list as a result of those efforts.
Popova has insisted on keeping Brain Pickings ad-free, though there are Amazon affiliate links when she recommends books (which is awesomely often). There are also donation buttons throughout the site, offering an easy way to contribute to the cause if you enjoyed something you’ve read. Both one-time and subscription-based donation options are available.
Rather than being just a curator, Tumblr is a blogging platform that has created a curation renaissance, their software easily (and freely) allowing users to ‘microblog’ or ‘tumblog,’ which generally involves pulling in content from around the web and displaying it in a collection for others to view (sound like something we’ve been talking about?).
As of January, 2014, Tumblr hosts about 166 million blogs, and just over 73 billion posts (yes, billion). Despite all that, Tumblr only made about $13 million in 2012, and hoped to make $100 million in 2013. It was bought by Yahoo for $1.1 billion, though, so they’ve done something right in focusing on bringing in more users rather than monetizing as quickly as they could have.
Speaking on monetization, Tumblr’s main revenue stream is advertising, including a promoted post model that allows advertisers to ensure other users will see a specific post they’ve published, even if those other users aren’t subscribed to the advertiser’s blog.
I’m pairing these two sites together; not because they’re identical, but because they use similar systems for organization, elevation of the best content, and gamification strategies.
The original reddit was founded in 2005 and bought by Condé Nast in 2006. In 2008, it became an open source project, and in 2011, it was spun off as a subsidiary, operating as an independent entity (though still owned by Advance Publications, the company that owns Condé Nast).
Why is all that important? Because reddit is a strange place with a unique culture, and at one point it was thought being bought would kill its charm (especially when pitted against Digg, a similar site that became more popular than reddit for a while, and which we’ll talk about in a second).
Today, reddit thrives, operating as one of the top 100 most-trafficked sites on the web (over 100 million unique visitors per month), driven by a community-centric curatorial method in which users submit content and then vote it up or down. Those who submit items of particular interest gain ‘karma,’ which is a currency of sorts and figures in to how well your submissions do in the future (in short, it shows how reliably good a curator you are).
Reddit’s main income source is advertising, an upgrade that users can buy for themselves or for others called ‘reddit gold,’ and a store that sells branded merchandise (like t-shirts and posters).
Hacker News was founded in 2007, and it’s said the founder (Paul Graham) was hoping to replicate the success reddit saw in its early days by creating a community focused on technology, entrepreneurship, and startups.
Hacker News doesn’t have a business model, because Hacker News is a sub-project of Y Combinator, which is a very successful (and the best known) startup accelerator. It also uses karma to determine who is a reputable submitter of content, and allows for ranking of content (though there are no down votes, until you’ve reached a certain karma threshold), but the curatorial focus is far smaller, and so is the community.
These two sites provide great examples of how a successful model can be used on two different scales, by two different groups, for two different purposes. Though there is overlap between the two, neither community is threatened by the other because they both have such specific niches they’ve dominated. They’re also great examples of monetized and non-monetized strategies evolving from the same type of community-driven curation.
I kept Digg separate from reddit and Hacker News because, although it started out very similar to reddit (and in fact is said to have inspired the creation of reddit, and several other sites around the same time period), it has since undergone a transformation that changed quite radically how it operates, even if the results and pitch are somewhat similar.
Founded in 2004, Digg started out as an advertising-supported site that allowed its community to up vote and down vote (‘digg’ and ‘bury’) content submitted by its members. It was almost sold to Google in 2008, but negotiations collapsed before they could complete. A 2010 relaunch was marred by glitches and increased competition from Facebook. In 2012, the site was sold off in pieces.
The current iteration of Digg was rebuilt mid-2012 by the brand’s new owners (in six weeks!), and brought a new sensibility that’s far more like a small, nimble startup than before. It still curates interesting stuff from around the web, but has an editorial front page (curated by pros, though users can still submit content to be mulled over), and is supported (as of January 2014) by ‘sponsored posts,’ which are essentially advertisements done up as articles about the advertisers.
An interesting approach to a familiar model, StumbleUpon was founded in 2001 and was something like a reddit or Digg. But instead of trying to be the ‘Front Page of the Internet,’ it made itself ubiquitous, taking up a small space on users’ toolbar and allowing for quick ‘stumbles,’ wherein the service loads a site it thinks you might like, based on things you’ve enjoyed in the past and the recommendations of others with similar tastes. StumbleUpon also made use of thumbs up and thumbs down rankings, which helped improve the service’s recommendation engine, allowing for better ‘stumbles’ in the future.
StumbleUpon’s ad service pops an advertiser’s website into the list of potential ‘stumbles’ a user might encounter, and with 30 million registered users, they’ve got a large audience to work with.
Like Google, Yahoo is a sprawling beast of a company that started out as a humble web portal: a single page of links to interesting things on the internet, back before the internet was much of a thing (1994).
These portal roots go deep enough that Yahoo still serves the same purpose for many of the reportedly half-billion visitors it hosts each month. The majority of Yahoo’s revenues come from advertising, which is sold by an auction system and based on the number of views an ad receives.
Yahoo employees curate the content on its portal (well, portals, since the main Yahoo page is available in more than 30 languages). They bring in general interest pieces from around the world and many different fields, alongside items of local interest, and content from social media sites like Twitter. It also purports to learn what you like over time, much like StumbleUpon.
A relatively new service in the blogging platform space, Medium has made a name for itself by having one of the more minimal, designer-friendly user interfaces of any blog host, and for incorporating a fairly novel means of organizing the content produced by those who use it.
Rather than dividing up content by author, content is organized by topic, which allows for a different type of search and curation than you’ll easily find on other platforms. Additionally, users can build collections of work from various authors, allowing for a secondary type of curation on top of the ‘front page’ selections, which are presented based on how many positive up-votes they receive from other users.
It’s unclear as of January, 2014, what business model (if any, since the founders are quite well-to-do) Medium will adopt, but it seems to have many options, including straight-up advertising, or ‘sponsored content,’ similar to what Digg is doing.
Similar in scope and variety of content to Brain Pickings, Boing Boing actually started out as a print zine, evolving later into one of the most popular blogs on the internet. It features a combination of hand-selected-from-elsewhere and original content, and has been very smart about the dissemination of their curated content on other platforms (their show, Boing Boing TV, can be watched on Virgin America flights, for example), which is kind of like a curator allowing their curated content to be curated by others (very meta).
Boing Boing pays the rent with a combination of advertising and a popular store featuring t-shirts and the like.
The Awl was launched in 2009 and is an aggregator that works much like a literary magazine: they accept submissions of work and publish the stuff they deem to be of high quality and in line with their editorial objectives.
The Magazine is also new, and works a bit like a literary magazine. Concepts are pitched by writers, and some are commissioned, the resulting pieces published (though they sometimes contact a writer to put together something specific). The Magazine is published on the web and through a custom phone app.
For both The Awl and The Magazine, authors whose work is accepted are paid, though The Awl makes their money through advertisements, while The Magazine eschews ads in favor of charging a monthly or yearly subscription fee.
Two similar methods, two very different business models. Both make for excellent reading.
Started in 1995 by Scott Beale, Laughing Squid is one of the better known and most well-respected curated blogs on the web. It’s also an interesting creature in that it makes money through both advertising and a store selling t-shirts and mugs and affiliate links (for Amazon) andselling web hosting.
Laughing Squid is a well-diversified curatorial company that, like Brain Pickings and Boing Boing, curates interestingness while also adding a great deal of commentary and additional content to the things they share.
Laughing Squid accepts submissions of interesting links, but the decision of what to post is determined by an editorial team.
Some other genres of curation to consider
Products (RedBubble, Zazzle, Skreened)
Aggregators (Longreads, Google News, Circa, Flipboard, Pulse, Pocket, Pearltrees, Bundlr,Byliner)
Archives (internet, national)
Top Whatever Lists
SOME PARTING WORDS
If you taking away nothing else from this book, make it this: curation is an opportunity to derive more value from existing creations, resulting in new, different, and hopefully, better creations.
A curator is only as good as the value delivered to their audience, and his or her dedication to standards that help information survive and thrive across any media upon which it may be imprinted.
By defaulting to ‘helpful’ and ensuring that which we’re passionate about it shared in a mutually beneficial way, the act of sharing can be seen as less a plague upon those who make, and more a boon to everyone who creates and consumes.
That we all might share more of ourselves, and learn more of each other.
Curation is more than packaging—it is to help readers (discern) what is important in the world.
People are just more interesting than algorithms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Wright is an author, entrepreneur, and full-time traveler. Colin was born in 1985 and lives in a new country every four months; the country is voted on by his readers. More about Colin.
A great big thanks to the folks who helped me whip this book into suitable shape for publication:
Tahlia Meredith, Josh Lipovetsky, Kevin Grunert, Elisa Doucette, Brian Lackey, Tony Carreon, Sean Rogers, Andy Yang, Steph Montreuil, Sherri Nevins, and Shawn Mihalik.
Any typos or other mistakes are probably the result of me ignoring their damn good advice.