Rethinking the Curator’s Code: Hidden Dangers of Elevating Content Sharing

Let’s start with two truths: 1) Brands are becoming publishers. 2) The way brands balance merely “curating” existing content with producing quality original work will have a huge impact on the publishing world, and journalism as a whole.

At the SXSW Festival in March, Maria Popova, creator of uber-successful curation project Brainpickings, revealed a project intended to make curation a little bit easier: the Curator’s Code — a project designed to encourage sites to adopt a pair of Unicode symbols (ᔥ and ↬) to signify the journalism lingo of “via” (direct discovery) or “hat tip” (indirect discovery/inspiration), respectively.

On a SXSW panel with Popova, The New York Times’ David Carr enthusiastically called the project “incredible,” and he wrote about it in his Media Equation column.

But not everyone reacted so warmly.

On its surface, Curator’s Code was a good-natured campaign to create a universal standard for attributing discovery and inspiration. But it turned out to be a Pandora’s box of unresolved issues plaguing the publishing world.

Ten days after revealing the Curator’s Code, Popova posted a response on Brainpickings to the “venom and meanspirited derision” the Code had inspired. Her response — more or less saying, “This is not okay” — ignored some very big questions at hand.

Is “curation” dangerous?

Once the domain of that guy in tight black jeans at your local gallery, “curation” has developed a broad meaning in the Internet age. Every person and brand with a Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Pinterest account can call themselves a curator, in the sense that what they choose to share is a curation of both their own thoughts and activities and also the content on the web.

Many see this — and the implied self-importance of the Curator’s Code — as an attempt to ascribe undue value to the act of sharing.

“’Curation’ is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history,” New York Times Developer/Writer Matt Langer wrote in a widely shared blog post. “The business in which we’re all engaged when we’re tossing links around on the internet is simple ‘sharing.’”

“But we should not delude ourselves for a moment into bestowing any special significance on this,” he continued. It’s “ultimately still reducible to ‘things I find appealing,’ and regardless of how special one might feel about the highly cultivated state of his or her tastes there is no threshold of how many other people are eager to be on the receiving end of whatever it is we’re sharing that somehow magically transforms this act into curation.”

Langer makes a good point — there’s no standard that distinguishes curation from sharing, it’s just a means of attributing artfulness and profession to the act of presenting non-original content to an audience. The Curator’s Code potentially inflames this problem, as it gives sharers permission to self-identify as curators.

And that self-identification can have consequences.

The threat to original content

At first, the Curator’s Code seems to only provides a boost to original content by making it easier for “curators” to give credit to the content creator.

But that isn’t the Curator’s Code’s only goal. Popova also wants to see the symbols used to fully credit curators.

“Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor,” she told The New York Times. “When we don’t honor discovery, we are robbing somebody’s time and labor. The Curator’s Code is an attempt to solve some of that.”

But in effect, that dilutes the meaning of “via” (or ↬) — it becomes no longer a signifier of the source of original authorship, but a general attribution of discovery. It implies that the two are equal, and most everyone would agree that they’re not. The publishing world is in desperate need of more quality original content, not more discovery.

How the elevation of curation is bad for brands

It’s clear that brands are going to invest heavily in publishing in the coming years. How they approach that challenge will have a huge impact on the future of what we watch and read, and whether the world produces journalists anymore, or just social media managers.

That’s what makes elevating the act of sharing content to “curation” — like it’s some kind of high-value art form — dangerous.

It discourages brands from doing the hard (and often more effective) thing — creating great original content — in favor of doing the easy thing — sharing stuff that someone else made.

It gives ad agencies permission to charge high prices for “curating” a Twitter feed, instead of doing the smart (and more expensive) thing and hiring journalists to make great original content — a rare commodity that actually moves the dial.

Simply, the elevation of curation threatens to ruin the great opportunity at hand for brands to remake the publishing world, and win big by investing heavily in original content.

Who knew a little symbol could do so much?

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