Officially 20 years old this fall, the World Wide Web remains a tenaciously chaotic place—a bottomless pool of electronic information, presented in a linked-together, more-is-better format. Anarchy, in motion, without end. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it induces a kind of information vertigo.
The web’s intrinsic chaos is cultivated by the medium’s three signature characteristics: its interactivity, its accessibility, and its effectually infinite size. Every individual web user is at any moment, instantly, a potential web contributor; there are few if any gatekeepers to block the way; and there’s no space to run out of. (Most efforts to organize physical space arise, after all, in response to space constraints.)
This place is so chaotic that efforts to contain chaos online often end up adding to it. A case in point is the MP3 blog.
MP3 blogs blossomed in the early to mid ’00s to filter the music the web was propagating, legally or otherwise. Before long there were so many blogs that sorting through them was hardly easier than sorting through the music itself.
One prominent attempt to tame this chaos was the rise of so-called “aggregator” sites such as The Hype Machine, Elbo.ws, and, more recently, Shuffler.fm, which gather the music offered on blogs into one place. These are valuable sites to be sure, providing a variety of effective filters through which to approach the chaos of online music. But in the end, aggregation necessarily reflects the underlying anarchy of the information being aggregated.
Half of infinity, after all, is still infinity.
More recently a new strategy—or, at least, buzzword—has captivated the pundit class. The idea/buzzword is curation. In May of 2010, Wired, in full prophet mode, welcomed us to the so-called “Age of Curation,” predicting an imminent day when the parade of links, sites, apps, comments, songs, photos, videos, feeds, and more, that vie for attention on our screens are rendered manageable by, yes, curation.
The article was unconvincing, beginning with the fact that it never really told us what curation is, or should be, beyond the vague idea that it entails narrowing down from too many choices. (Gee, thanks.) But if we stop to define what it means to curate online, we can see that the idea has merit as a potential antidote to the web’s innate chaos.
What curating is
So, a definition: curating is the purposeful selection of a small number of items from a large array of choices, presented in an informed and informative manner.
Slight expansion of definition: the curator aims to create a contained and meaningful experience for visitors via his or her expertise.
Right away the allure in the anarchic online space is clear, at least to me. A contained and meaningful experience? Knowledgeable narrowing down to a manageable number of selections? Bring it on.
The verb “curate” is a relatively recent coinage, deriving from the function of being a curator, which has traditionally been associated with someone who puts art exhibits together for museums. Despite some huffing and puffing from the curator community, the word is not owned by PhDs in art history. If you are using your expertise and aesthetic sense to sort through a large number of somethings, whatever they may be, and are offering up a narrow selection, complete with some context and explanation, you are curating.
And yet I don’t think that honest-to-goodness curating is what the buzzword folks are buzzing about. Curation is being rapidly transformed into another meaningless bit of jargon for venture capitalists to toss around in pursuit of the next lottery winner temporarily masquerading as a business enterprise. Encouraging everyone from stay-at-home parent bloggers to companies with global brand recognition to engage in “content curation,” via a series of bullet-pointed action steps, assisted by specialized software and credentialed consultants, borders on parody.
In the name of curation, what I see being ballyhooed are schemes and short-cuts to maximize page views. There’s nothing (necessarily) wrong with that but it’s not curating, it’s business as usual.
Posts like “Content Curation in 13 Minutes a Day,” however well-intentioned, are just silly. The web’s abiding chaos is the result of speed and quantity; any curation effort emphasizing speed and quantity is more of the problem rather than any kind of solution.
Curating is not just filtering
An obvious difference between filtering (or editing, or aggregating, both of which are different words for filtering) and curating is that filterers still end up offering large numbers of items to sort through. Curators must keep selections to a rigorous minimum. One long-running model is the site Very Short List, which selects but one thing a day to inform you about.
Or then there’s the granddaddy of curating sites, Arts & Letters Daily, which gives us three annotated links a day. The site looks to be a jumble but has a rigorous (if idiosyncratic) structure, with new material added to the top, older material dropping downward.
The difference between filtering and curating is, however, more than quantitative. A curator aims to present web content in a manner that removes it from the medium’s inherent endlessness as well as its relentless robotic-ness. This can be done only with the care and attention of an individual intelligence. A curator, alive to context and nuance, has a voice, a sensibility, a vibe; there is something inherently idiosyncratic about curating.
As such, curating cannot, by definition, be done by algorithm or formula. Algorithms and formulas are terrific at filtering, but lack the nuance required for curating.
Likewise, curating cannot be democratized; it is not about voting and polling and telling us what’s most popular.
Curation succeeds because it’s one activity in this vast, automated medium in which an individual human being must intervene. Even if you could invent a robotic curator, which does everything a human could do, it fails at curating because as a human user, you want and need the connection to another human being in this particular function. To curate is to perform an act of human intelligence on behalf of other humans.
But, as such, curation may be doomed to failure. Because as much as the web wants and needs curation content-wise, it tends to defeat curation efforts structure-wise. The medium’s insatiable addiction to quantitative measurement tends to overpower the curator’s modus operandi.
Visibility versus Idiosyncrasy
We all know that to succeed, web sites require visibility. Visibility demands the dogged pursuit of page views. The pursuit of page views requires a strategy maximizing both search engine placement and, for lack of a better word, buzzability. That is to say, a web site raises its profile by offering content that people are already looking for.
MP3 blogs have always known this, which is why buzz bands gain such momentum—once a band is trending popular, blogs seeking more visitors go out of their way to post songs by said band, knowing that the band’s fans will find their way to the blog.
Visibility furthermore demands more linkage and more options than a site that’s legitimately curating should be offering. (Links improve search engine standing; options increase “stickiness”—i.e., time spent per visit.)
True curation, as a result, often keeps a web site effectively invisible, since the curator is using only his or her knowledge and aesthetic sense to guide the content, not SEO tricks or buzz-factor arm-waving.
I speak from experience. Fingertips, curating free and legal music since 2003, has a small following, but remains undetectable to the web’s masses. And I am not alone. There are any number of other honest-to-goodness music curators out here, most likewise toiling in obscurity.
Which is a shame. Not just because I would love to share the music here with more people—it’s a shame because music in particular is ideally suited for curation.
That’s all radio ever was, back in rock radio’s heyday. The original free-form FM DJs were marvelous curators. And although no one would have thought to pinpoint this back then, radio was blessed with an effective curation tool we now call “real time.” On the radio, there’s no way to offer 20 or 40 or 60 songs simultaneously and then say “Okay, you sort through them.”
So where are the curators?
Meanwhile, the web’s most visible music blogs are by and large filterers—they have too many posts, too many songs, too many other distractions on the page to be considered curators. They seek to offer as much as they can either because they aim to succeed as advertising vehicles or just because they’re caught in the more-is-better mindset that generally afflicts web sites.
An undue number of smaller blogs likewise do not curate effectively. They post too often, they offer lists of songs without context, they recycle press releases, they clutter things with small print and action options, they do not communicate effectively, they do not display a wide enough range of knowledge to be trustworthy—and on and on it goes.
Some bloggers post too infrequently to be good curators, which is an opposite problem, but still a problem; and many simply haven’t been online long enough to have a track record. A good curator is a regular presence, a consistent resource, an established authority.
This is not to say that all music bloggers are supposed to be curators. There are plenty who don’t want or need to be doing that. And then there’s the question of how many people out there, music fans or otherwise, actually want things curated for them. Perhaps we’ve trained a generation of people to be so focused on what they themselves are sharing that they care not for what anyone else is sharing, however knowledgeably.
And yet, even so, talented and effective music curators are out there. (Less good news, from my perspective, is that most of them do not limit themselves to free and legal MP3s, but I’ll overlook that problem for this particular essay.)
A handful of higher-profile bloggers are successful curators, including Matthew Perpetua (whose Fluxblog, started in 2002, claims credit as the very first MP3 blog) and Heather Browne (of I Am Fuel, Your Are Friends), along with the imaginative and literary crew behind Said the Gramophone.
Each of these blogs has its curatorial quirks. But among the “elite” music blogs, these are three that are curating more effectively than most.
Beyond that, curators tend to be lost among the much larger number of low-profile blogs that persist as a background hum on the 21st-century music scene. And now we get back to the visibility problem. How many talented music curators exist among the web’s thousands of blogs is anyone’s guess.
The only thing certain is that none is getting all that much attention. Chaos, pretty much, yet reigns.
And then do we curate the curators?
Although hang on a second. Let’s imagine that true music curation catches on, and good curators become more visible. Does this help?
Or, if the world is convinced to desire the services of curators, do the curators themselves become impossible to sort through? If you then have to “curate the curators,” this seems to take us down an absurd road.
Or maybe not. Maybe when the end point is a place of curation, the sense of information vertigo that so easily sets in online is relieved. Because the vertiginous sensation relates, I think, to the sense of endless trap doors opening everywhere you go—each new site opening onto countless other sites, offering countless other links.
A good curator offers a kind of conclusion, or at least an oasis. You’ve arrived in the hands of someone who just wants to show you a few things, and have you pay attention to them. Items on display are there for their own thing-iness, so to speak. If a music curator is sharing a song, it’s that song, at that moment. It’s not the band’s whole catalog, it’s not the 35 other bands that people who like that band also like.
In the curatorial context, if only for a short time, the linking stops. The vain, mindless sharing of everything stops. Your attention is directed to one thing at a time. Not everyone may want or need this, but the cultural history of the human race to date tells me that occasional focus and attention paid is a good thing, even a necessary thing. I, for one, will keep at it.
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In addition to any comments you might have about the essay, I would love it if you used the comment space to post the names of blogs and/or web sites that you feel are doing a good job curating music, in alignment with the definition laid out above.