A Great Responsibility?: The Curator's Code

I don't remember how I found this article from the Times about two new initiatives to develop best practices in the online content-aggregation biz. I guess that's pretty ironic.

Nonetheless, the wannabe typography nerd in me, who loves interrobangs and double daggers and all sorts of puzzling symbols, was rather taken with The Curator's Code, brainchild of Brain Pickings' Maria Popova.

The idea is to codify the practice of giving credit to others for having rustled up content that you yourself are now sharing, with typographical symbols representing direct and indirect discovery—that's from the unified Canadian aboriginal syllabary (ᔥ) and a rightwards arrow with loop (↬), respectively.<1> Certainly, having a single character to replace "via," "hat tip," &c. is a boon to conscientious Twitter users.

Marco Arment, creator of the app that's responsible for me often forgetting where I first encountered articles, posted a great commentary (ᔥ Daring Fireball). He obliquely returns to the subject of an earlier article to note that educating people about linking probably won't change their behaviour because the "problems with online attribution aren’t due to a lack of syntax: they’re due to the economics and realities of online publishing."

But where this gets really interesting to me is when the debate turns to the value of a "curator's" labour, voice and brand in the current online environment:

But regardless of how much time it takes to find interesting links every day, I don’t think most intermediaries deserve credit for simply sharing a link to someone else’s work.

Reliably linking to great work is a good way to build an audience for your site. That’s your compensation.

But if another link-blogger posts a link they found from your link-blog, I don’t think they need to credit you. Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation. (2012, under "Credit for discovery")

Popova, who notes in the donation text on Brain Pickings that it takes "450+ hours a month to curate and edit" the site, responded yesterday on twitter:

As the Times article suggests, aggregation is a big deal these days. When we call it "curation," it begins to connect to a wider trend in our society of endowing authority to consumption and lifestyle experts--what Pierre Bourdieu (1984) referred to as "cultural intermediaries" and the "new petite bourgeoisie."

On TV and in magazines, they give fashion advice, redecorate your house, tell you what wines to appreciate and what food to serve them with. The trendy neighbourhoods of our "creative cities" are chock-full of boutique stores whose business model rests on the curatorial acumen of their owners.<2> And, online, a lot of traffic is generated, trapped, and pushed around by content aggregators that are located somewhere on the "continuum between 100% original reporting and zero value being added to the source content" (Arment 2012, under "Aggregation, over-quoting, and rewriting").

There's no doubt that the immaterial labour of linking and sharing adds value to the product in question. That's not only true in some kind of existential way but also quite literally in the case of advertising-supported media. But is it, as Popova suggests, the creation of some new thing ("curiosity")?

I'd suggest that it resembles the immaterial labour of the fan rather than that of the author.<3> That is to say, curating is a distinct practice from authorship. They are articulated together and require one another, but they're not the same thing and conflating them is unhelpful.

But all this is really a matter of selling past the close. One doesn't need to believe that linking is tantamount to creating a derivative cultural commodity in order for one to give a tip of the rightwards arrow with loop.


  1. Depending on your computer's support for Unicode, these symbols may or may not show up. If they don't, check out to see what they look like. \r
  2. I'd also argue this is true of the specialty retailers and organizations I've studied doing my research on the nerd-culture scene (Woo, forthcoming 2012). \r
  3. Sarah Thornton's 1996 discussion of "hipness" as a form of "subcultural capital" amongst British ravers, DJs, and club promoters might be apposite here.

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