FOE6: The ethics and politics of curation

A One-on-One Conversation with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova and Undercurrent’s Joshua Green

We live in an environment where the power of circulation is no longer solely–arguably, even primarily–in the hands of media companies. However, if that means we all now play a role as curator and circulator of content, what responsibilities does that bring with it? How is curation becoming an important aspect of the online profile of professional curators? And, for all of us who participate in social networking sites or who forward content to family and friends via email, what are our obligations to both the creators of that content and to the audiences with whom we share it? If we possess the great power to spread content, what are the great responsibilities that come along with it?

JG: This is a session about curation. How it may have moved from media companies to something wider. SOmething that is becoming an everyday activity, to generate wealth, or a sense of self. But we have a question about the definition of curation

MP: the C word is a semantic can of worms. It has become vacant in meaning. It no longer contains the thing we want to capture. ANyone with an instagram is curating life. This is the same as someone who spends 2 days at library and create a story about found photos. We need a new narrative around it. DOn’t subscribe to the word..it’s about research and editing. That’#s what scholars and journalists have been doing. Using the word for aggregation is wrong.

JG: Is journalism a more appropriate term for what you do?

MP: Yes. THis is what editors and journalists have done. To frame what matter and why in terms of culture. The word came from museum world, It is not just assembling things together for aesthetic value, but as a framework for understanding a particular thing.

JG: it is the production of narrative and search for meaning,t through the assemblage of things that are linked. Presented and re-articulated. The idea that there are a range of pieces sensibly assembled and articulated to speak something. Is this missing from instagram feed.

MP: there could be, but very rare instances. photojournalism can be that, but everything else is for aesthetic value. It is not a form of authorship in the way that journalism is

JG: is there too much gravitas in it?

MP: there is a space for a collection of cat pictures..but we lump it together with something else. THere is a spectrum of editorial and curatorial that any piece of content lives on/ Both extremes are there. There is nothing that truly original, but original is one end, right to pulling things together. About 70% of things i write about don’t exist on line,t hey are out of print books; it is thinking about things; there is a technical component to this, Especially online., If taken from elsewhere and reposted, then written about, that is curation rather than authorship? If I take an out of data book and then write it, part is curatorial, part of editorial about writing.

JG: what is the curatorial element?

MP: discovery. I like that, better than invention. Discovery is a form of authorship, to shine a spotlight on something that is there.

JG: I would argue that this is not curation…but editing.. Meaning through redaction, assembly of new form, a new thing from something else. Different from curation, assembling things that are related.

MP: but same thing. The thematic is authors point of view. Still a collection through a authors additional point of view. Look at great curators (Sullivan form NYT), very little new, but pulls together stuff that reflects his own world view

JG: Buzzfeed..assembles 25 pictures of dogs

MP: but that’s a sensibility not a point of view!

JG\: but it is a POV..that lulziness and newsiness are the same kind of things. There is argument that there is significance

MP: they are creating an argument of attention, but not telling you why you should care, there;s nothing beyond the first moment

JG: so is this about significance, juxtaposition of two statements. Is dog pictures more significant than hurricane pictures?

MP: WHen Buzzfeed, it is less about creating significance in isolation, rather than totality., What I did, why I started, I take pieces of knowledge etc and with them we create our own ideas. YOur output as a human in a world is base don the breadth of resources. YOu never know the significance of stuff, never know when things will matter. THere is a 1939 essay, the usefulness of useless knowledge, you can’t plan for utility of intellectual curiosity, somethings may be useful but you don’t know

JG: What are the perceived value of curated content. Why did this term emerge. Is it about the tactility, the ease we can manipulate content, the tools we have, is curation a necessary term to describe the activities. Where does the value come from. The reveal or the labour that goes into it

MP: the obvious answer is that this is the time of information overload, proliferating to be overwhelming. The internet as a medium of information deliverable has a bias. The bias of chronology – the latest is at the top, the oldest goes away. COnditions us to believe that something more recent is more important. If we step away from news, then that is not the case. There are things that are older cn be timeless ad timely and get lost. The other bias, the internet helps find us more of what we are looking for and not to help us find what we don’t know we are looking for. My role is to help people find things they didn;t know they were interested in., to enrich them. With search culture, the lean forward culture. We deepen our existing interests, find out more about what we know. But curators help them discover and browse and learn about new things. Curation is an antidote to that bias.

JG: i think that you are right, but..i think we need to ensure that we are not blind to the fact that there are lots of people who curate. YOur mission (to bring new things) can be adopted by lots of people with different viewpoints. Uncomfortable with viewpoint that there is a worthy curation and the rest of the stuff.

MP: a lot of it coming from accountability, Being open where you are coming from .My audience knows it is my own point of view and they can disagree. But with NYT there is a different responsibility about what they make news. And an instagram feed is different. It is not someone who tells you the ‘TRUTH’.

JG: yes, but here is an interesting aside…the lack of transparency can lead to (journalists who curate themselves). Moving to another question, what do authors/creators and curators. The interplay between creating new works and those who interpret them

MP: there is value in shining light on an original work and bringing a new audience, the person who bridges a new audience brings value. But aligning that with financial gain or funding…we have failed to integrate on funding model of media, it’s still the ad supported model, same as the early times of newspapers. Which means circulation manager can take over the editorial viewpoint. When you are accountable to an advertiser, you are not accountable to your reader. It is very hard…we have made it hard..to monetise value, what readers find valuable, but tried to transmute to monopoly money, the eyeballs. It is very hard…i feel the value is there, but have reservations about how to make this financially valuable

JG: with monetizing attention, how do you move the delay. it moves purchase away from seeing the content. There is value in mining the tail, in bringing them back to attention. Pressing you again, how does the value flow between the original work and the curation. Is it standing on shoulders of giants or do they thank you.

MP: how does the curator handles the money. I’m ad free and supported by donations. The readers decide what value they see and choose what to donate. I write about books..the books can then sell. It is separate to the value that i bring, that audience pays me. It is down to having personal decision about what feels fair.

JG: this question of fairness is a junction to talk about the curators code..

MP: i launched the Curators Code, about discovery and the ethics of attribution. Not just the original author, but also about who brought the content to your attention. It is an important piece in the curators process. We have standards for copyright, but there was a component about discovery that was missing. THis Code suggests a way of doing this in standard form. I see lots of sites that take stuff, and not credit who did the original curation. THe larger aggregator sites do this as a norm. There is not a standard and not a sensibility in the audience that this is ethically question and harms people

JG: the intent of the project is to get appreciation for the ‘middleman’

MP: no, these are the researchers, the ones who do the work. It’s not about credit and ego, its mostly it comes from..a rabbit hole of discovery, to be led down a pathway, When you break the attribution, you break the chain of discovery.

JG: How successful was the project?

MP: what’s the measure of success?

JG: success would be the adoption of the system. Citations are old form, not just hyperlinks. YOu can link to data and the article and the things in between. The success would be it would start to be used

MP: we proposed 2 symbols, for direct discovery, and for ideas that lead to new work. We never said you must use the characters. THere were other things in there. It was not about how to do it, but to tell people why to do it. I’ve seen the symbols being used, but how do you quantify the word via. can you say because of the curators code. The hope is that there is an awareness of it, that people are thinking about it. I have seen more attribution, can’t say it came from the code. THere is a convergence of thought, in the past few months, there has been plenty of this, there are many different ways. It is an element of IP, about who is doing the work, There has been more attribution, being mindful of labour.

JG: is IP intellectual labour..i think there are more steps. It’s not that simple. If someone takes something from this conversation, would they attribute it. This costs me very little..

MP: but it costs you your whole life..all your experience leads to this conversation…

JG: It would be wonderful..the web is so fleeting, things go away. Were this an oral culture, then this would be important, we would have little way of recording….when I search on Google, is that curation? I get a links that are connected, arranged an a way based on algorithm significance. There is meaning in page of search results

MP: it only gives you things you are interested in, but you can’t do an algorithm for curiosity. It can tell you what could answer you question, but not where else you can go to, what more different ways of thinking about it. Look at Guttenberg, it was not just about the wine press moment for the press. There were lots of bits of knowledge that went into the press – the ink, the type etc. You don’t know what you need until you need to

JG: does he own the wine press person a hat tip?

MP: no, the wine press person was not in the act of discovery. Guttenberg was

JG: There is an element of curiosity in the searching; your model empathises the value of experts.

MP: i disagree. THese are complementary processes, not an either/or One does not substitute the other. THe internet is trying to do this, to send us to a search culture. We live in a culture that thinks if not searchable, then it does not exist

JG: there is so much effort on value that comes from other areas. Eg twitterstream about news and things that happen. There is so much serendipity in a Twitter stream Are we necessarily a culture that preference search when there is so much talk about other means of discovery.

MP: twitter is personal curation, the act of choosing who to follow is personal curation.

JG: I think there is a politic about presenting the curatorial act, that good curation is about worthy knowledge..about enlightenment. Many of the things that you say is valuable…(about experts)

MP: the value of a good twitter stream, is like a great magazine, you get the news and other things. It uses the foot of the door to get pressing interests and then the odd other thing, the other new knowledge/

JG: validity of taste and the loftiness of what is value, still have problems with this

MP: if we were in a world where the audience is the only thing that matters, then the audience will determine what is valuable. They will determine, different audiences will find different things valuable.

AUdQ: the difference between individual curators and crowd curators (eg brain pickers vs reddits

MP: the value of the curator is like an information point starter scheme. An individual, takes an ethical point of view, about who the world works and how it could work. THe multiple POV can not have the moral compass, what is right and wrong. It is different. There can’t be ethical direction when dealing with a crowd.

JG: isn’t the purpose of some communities where we can discuss things,

MP: yes, also about starting points for discovery

AudQ: if somebody used what is being said here…JG does not think that is needed, MP does. When does the need end, how far back do you track the thought and idea

MP: that is THE question. Even if we have the best intention to attribute, you can’t always have all the information. When does transformation become a form of authorship. We can’t have a precise answer. It’s about your memory, where you draw the line

AudQ: Wondering about the messiness of this space. You have commercial areas, then bloggers and self-appointed online taste makers.

JG: we touched on it earlier, ie if Huffpost takes stuff without attribution. These issues, we are starting to see. Good work done in search of truth etc are blandly corporatised by a system that has no regard for where things come from

MP: people who care about the work they do can sound self righteous. Is it coming from a sense of purpose or a sense of gain? Do you want to gain at expense of reader or do you want the readers to gain.

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