Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Curators: not just for museums anymore?

"The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the rolling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways, the hope that individuals might feel invited by the gravitational pull of a broad and open commons to “rip, mix, and burn” — to curate." Gideon Lewis-Kraus, 2007 [emphasis mine; paywall to original quote]

The internet is a very big place, and it can be exceptionally tough to keep track of everything that's of interest. A typical reader randomly browsing a topic ends up with a fair number of dead-end clicks—articles that just aren't that relevant or important. Fortunately, some individuals out there collate the best stuff, remix it, and push it to the outside world through blogs, news sites, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other venues. In a formal sense, these individuals are often termed "web curators" or "content curators".

In a nutshell, the web curator is not necessarily a content creator, but a content editor. I mean "editor" in the broad sense, of course—someone who selects interesting pieces and places them with other interesting pieces in new and meaningful ways. This is similar to what editors of magazines or anthologies do.

Museum Curators
Of course, the term "curator" was around well before the internet -- most notably in the museum profession (Wikipedia provides a pretty good summary, as does the US Bureau of Labor Statistics). In fact, my official job title is curator, so I can speak from some personal, professional experience. What exactly do curators do, then?
  • Direct the overall collection strategies for an institution. What to collect, what to deaccession, what to devote resources towards, etc.
  • Ensure the long-term survival of the collections.
  • Engage in original research (often using museum collections).
  • Present the collections to a broad audience, often through physical exhibits but also through various other media.
Depending on the type of institution and the field of study, a curator's duties may vary. For instance, a curator at an art museum may have slightly different tasks from that at a natural history museum, and collections managers may do some of the routine maintenance and preservation stuff at large museums. In any case, curation is a complex job.

Note that there is some overlap between the goals of a typical web curator and a museum curator. Both select and present collections of objects (fossils, or artwork, or blog posts) to a broad audience, but here the resemblance ends.

The British Museum - where curators reside. Image by awv, cc-by-2.0.

Why So Annoyed?
The contemporary usage of "web curator" is fundamentally misleading, at least judging from the above job description of a museum curator. Web curators collect, winnow, repackage, and disseminate information; they may have little role in content creation, and often have no concern for content longevity or archival. By the very nature of the internet, a web curator's work may be ephemeral (but not always). I would argue that this typical absence of the long view is a fundamental difference between most web curators and most museum curators.

Usage of the term "web curator" also muddies the waters around genuine digital curators. These are archivists, preservationists, and conservationists who work to ensure our digital heritage will be extant for the long haul. Digital curators in the pure sense aren't just repackaging links; these individuals ensure that the linked content will be around in 200 years. Calling yourself a curator doesn't mean you are one (similar to how not all museums are really museums, and loose applications of the term paleontologist, no matter how well-intentioned).

In part, I admit that some of my objections to the new usage of curator are a knee-jerk turf defense. I paid my dues, got my Ph.D., have an office in a museum basement. . .what have these internet upstarts done? I recognize this, and realize that such feelings are somewhat irrational. The English language changes constantly, and old words are often repurposed. After all, the web used to be just a product of a spider's backside. I just have to deal, right? On some level yes, but it still doesn't mean I have to like it! Nor does it mean I'm wrong.

The Most Important Objection
Admitting that definitions expand and contract, the fundamental issue here is that the phrase "web curator" is still basically meaningless. It serves to obfuscate, implying some kind of profundity where there may be none. In short, "web curator" is a buzzword.

A buzzword is corporate-speak that gussies up an otherwise mundane concept and makes it more intriguing (and profitable). Consider some examples. Value-added. Holistic. Accountability. All perfectly nice terms whose vague usage gives me a headache.

The big problem here—and a key quality that makes "curator" such a great buzzword—is that most people have no clue what a curator does. At best, folks have some vague notion of a curator as a person with a fancy degree and hipster glasses who hangs paintings on a wall and maybe writes some label copy. "Web curation" fits this stereotype and thus is a masterfully empty use of an important-sounding term (see these links for some choice, typical usages).

A solution?
I'm a big fan of calling a spade a spade. "Web curators" provide a valuable service, but the title unfortunately misleads. Just read the phrase "Real-time curators need to add participation widgets", and tell me it's not slightly silly! Were this statement not from a rather well-known blogger, the phrase could just as easily have originated in the Web Economy Bullsh*t Generator. In fact, the cited example is the perfect storm* of all that is wrong with buzzword-led thinking. 

Mike Taylor has pressed me on my objections to the term "web curator," asking for an alternative. I see nothing wrong with "editor". As outlined above, it's a much more accurate description of what "web curators" do. An editor is a skilled person who practices the art of identifying relevance and distributing the results. At its core, curated content on the web is part of a web anthology, just like an anthology of prose or poetry. The only difference is the digital format. Could we ever find a better, more descriptive term than "editor" for this role? In the digital realm, "curator" should be reserved for those who go beyond a primarily editorial role, to preservation, archival, and conservation.

So, ditch the web curator. Web editor, please.
*perfect storm = buzzword. Yes, I was being ironic by using it. Very meta, huh??
Thanks to Bora Zivkovic, Mike Taylor, Mike Keesey, Tori Herridge, and others for stimulating discussion and feedback that led to this post.


Anonymous said...

Curation of digital data is a hot debate with no real consensus, even among experts (NARA). Things are moving at such a fast pace that keeping up is extremely difficult. Check how many of the supplementary movies included in papers published 10 years ago or so actually can be opened in modern players and viewers and work 100% properly.

Anonymous said...

I hit publish before I meant to pull the trigger. Even in something as simple as displaying a document online, there are so many different formats, poorly defined metadata (if really any at all), and so on.... what guarantee do we really have that in 10-15 years from now that we'll even be able to open the doc files that everyone seems to be using for their supplementary data (as opposed to plain text or HTML)?

in short, these are all real isues for digital curators, and i agree with you that these people are editors, not curators.

nick gardner

iPreparator said...

Boy, too bad we missed this SXSW panel discussion. The Curators and the Curated.

Timely post. With a quarter million hipsters in Austin this week, I've become increasingly disgusted (leaning toward insulted) with the flagrant misapplication of the word "curator" as I've seen it bandied about town. Especially in the context of music shows. "18 Curated Bands" is what one flier said. This is not curation, it is good old fashioned promotion. Maybe that has a sleezy connotation, who wouldn't rather be a curator rather than a promoter?

Mike Taylor said...

Well, I don't think you're going to see "editor" catch on for this. As an journal editor yourself, you know what this entails. But most people seeing that word think "someone who edits documents".

I don't think this is a battle you can win.

Andy said...

@Mike - I think "editor" already has a broader, widely used acceptance beyond just copy-editing (especially among the literati - some of the worst offenders when it comes to "curation"). Nonetheless, it is important to call out misuses of "curator" (iPreparator notes prime targets), just as it's important to call out misuses of "open" and other terms. Perhaps it is a losing battle on all fronts - but still one worth fighting! Obfuscation is the enemy of communication.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I even saw a commercial the other day that informed me that Target is in the market of collecting and curating ...stuff.