Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

curators and imitators

You know what annoys me? Well, actually, that would be a long list. You know one thing that annoys me? The way some people on the internet use the word “curator.” People find cool stuff online and put links to that cool stuff on their website, and they say that they’re “curating” the internet. When Jorn Barger invented that kind of thing he was content to call it a weblog — a record or “log” of interesting stuff he found online.

Now, one might argue that the weblog or blog has changed its character since Barger invented it: instead of logging cool things found online, it primarily logs a writer’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences (often about stuff found online). So maybe a new name is needed for the “logging” kind of site?

Maybe. But can we try for something a little less pretentious than “curator”? In the usual modern senses of the word, a curator (who often works for a museum) has a complex set of responsibilities that can only be carried out well by someone with a good deal of training, taste, experience, and intelligence. A curator plays a role in deciding what a museum will acquire, and once acquisitions have been made, will consider which objects are to be displayed, for how long they will be displayed, and in relation to what other objects they will be displayed. Curators organize objects in space and present them for public scrutiny. They also educate the public in the understanding of those objects, and of the principles of organization employed. Curators also help to care for those objects, to make sure they don’t get damaged or lost. (In ecclesiastical language, the priest who cares for the people of a parish while the rector is away is called a curate.)

Almost none of this is at work when people link to interesting things they have found on the internet. If a person whose website links to other websites is a curator, then a person who walks into the Louvre with a friend and points out the Mona Lisa is also a curator. It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction.

When I first made a comment about this on Twitter recently, I got pushback from my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and since he’s a very smart guy I have thought about this some more. His concern is that my point is unnecessarily elitist, and I don't mean for it to be that — and I don't think it is. It’s just a matter (I hope) of distinguishing among different sorts of online activity.

So I’d suggest this as the beginnings of a taxonomy:

1) The Linker: That’s what most of us are. We just link to things we’re interested in, without any particular agenda or system at work. That’s what my Pinboard page is, just a page of links.

2) The Coolhunter: People who strive to find the unusual, the striking, the amazing — the very, very cool, often within certain topical boundaries, but widely and loosely defined ones. I think Jason Kottke and Maria Popova are exemplary online coolhunters.

3) The Curator: There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together. I think Bibliodyssey is a genuinely curated site; also, just because of its highly distinctive sensibility, Things magazine.

Again, I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others. They’re just all different, and the difference is worth noting.

26 comments:

  • You had me up until "I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others."

  • I wasn't saying it. In some other circumstance I might say it, but not in this one.

  • I will say this now: curators are not better (more valuable to the ecosystem) than coolhunters.

  • From The Atlantic website, Design Blogs: The New Museums.

    "Lacking the burdens of tradition, bloggers are increasingly functioning as collectors and curators of design. A close look at a good example, 50 Watts."

  • The work of the modern curator...http://www.espncricinfo.com/the-ashes-2010-11/content/image/493650.html?page=1;object=56441

    http://www.espncricinfo.com/australia/content/ground/56441.html

    :)

  • "It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction."

    That familiar lament of someone trying to hold back linguistic change. Actually, if the distinction was necessary, it wouldn't disappear, or we would recreate it in another way. Languages are cool like that.

    And whether it's useful or not, you don't get to tell people what words to use. Nor does anyone else. Languages are cool like that, too.

  • mcur: Sometimes people make arguments. They say, "I think this would be helpful," or "I don't think this is so helpful, there's a better way." Get used to it. People are like that, even if you don't think it's cool.

  • Actually, this is something I've ben meaning to write about: the common idea that language, uniquely among all human spheres of action, has a course that cannot be altered. When a government is becoming increasingly totalitarian, and resistance movements form, why don't people say, "Ah, the familiar lament of someone trying to hold back political change?" In every single sphere of life people try to make some changes happen — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — and try to prevent other changes from happening — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Why should language be any different? Answer: it isn't.

  • I agree that curators (whilst they are my favouritve category) aren't necessarily more useful than coolhunters. However - and I tried to post this the other day, not sure what happened there - I think mention must be made of two of the best curators around, Poemas del río Wang and Ptak Science Blogs. And also of the coolhunters at Found Objects.

  • no opinion about ayjay's post, but profound thanks for its leading to Giovanni Tiso's arrow to Poemas del río Wang...

  • I can't decide who is more pretentious: self-aggrandizing linkers and cool hunters calling themselves "curators", or folks that take such great pains to deprive them of the label -- one that nicely evokes the care and expertise that they bring (or aspired to bring) to their efforts.

  • Ell: love those examples — the true curators.

    Giovanni: those are wonderful and truly curatorial sites. Thanks for telling me about them.

    Anonymous: when you decide, let me know!

  • Nice piece, sir. Douglass Crimp's essy "On the Museum's Ruins" (written in 1980) is still appropriate to the discussion of the role of the curator. I wrote a piece about it a couple of weeks ago:

    http://goodcontent.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/621/

    Owen

  • Thanks for that link, Owen — much better than my post!

  • I would say that Stephanie at http://evencleveland.blogspot.com comes pretty darn close to a curator over at her wonderful blog. She uses an of the moment interest of hers to set the tone for posts each week. Her short posts are interesting, thoughtful, and always teach you something new. You can tell that she is also learning, so it is a delight to follow her through her discoveries.

  • Good post. We have a film site (TheReelist.com) that is specifically trying to "curate" movie items and we do this by having one tab where all items go but the main tabis one that is curated to only be the interesting stuff. Also, we explicitly don't show trailers, gossip nor news to ensure that the site is exactly what people expect - a true curation of the web's movie essays and items.

  • Alan, thank you for the kind words, but I'd have to wildly disagree: I don't see what I do as "coolhunting." In fact, I'm rather wary of things that are cool for coolness' sake. I wouldn't say a long feature piece about military policy is "cool," nor is a book about the history of music notation. But these are the sorts of things I share, and I do so because they're of substance, not of coolness. Because, taken as a sum, they help people understand the deeper patterns of how the world operates.

    "Cool" is about a perception and image, it's very superficial. "Cool" is about how others see you, not how you see the world. I try to stay as far away from that as possible. (Hence my reluctance to ever actually use words like "cool" and "awesome.")

    I've been very explicit about what a poor word "curation" is, but until we have a better one, it's a decent placeholder and certainly more accurate than "coolhunting" in describing what content curators do, just like museum curators always have: frame what matters in the world by pulling together different pieces that, together, engender a deeper dialogue or thought process about culture.

  • The term doesn't fit all blogs, but it fits some blogs perfectly. So call me pretentious. *shrug*

  • This is a wonderful post.

    Someone has to put an end to the thudding march of curators!

  • Similar to Evans@thereellist, http://www.BeatConscious.org curates music through online radio shows and related website commentary, one purpose of which is to ensure that great music of the past doesn't get lost to today's audiences. The write-up which accompanies each show is intended to educate the public in the understanding of those 'objects' -- the songs -- within the context of the theme of the show and the principles of organization employed. I think this meets the proffered definition of curation, but I have to be honest and say I wouldn't object to "coolhunter" either ...

  • Yes! I had seen this not so much on sites, as in conferences - TED, Poptech, PDF - where the organizers/hosts are suddenly all "curators." Totally annoying :)

  • The average blog may not be a museum, but when it links to interesting finds, it counts at least as a wunderkammer. Is there a term for the equivalent of a curator for that? After all, it removes the pieces that often aren't done (like real research).

  • I think that use of curator is acceptable. The writers are often connoisseurs of certain areas of creativity, which is all museum curators are. If you want to find a misused professional term, look at how often "architect" is used for anything other than designing buildings.

  • Folks, sorry for all the comments that got caught (inexplicably) in the spam filter. I'm traveling and can't monitor these things as often as I need to. Wish I had time to respond, especially to Maria's thoughtful comment.

  • Let me take these thirty seconds to say that I am happy to accept Anna's dissent. Though I was using "cool" and "coolhunting" in a different way than she is, I can see why those terms are a bad fit for what she is trying to do. Maybe "curation" is the right word for Brainpickings, but I'd still like to make some distinctions in the interests of a better taxonomy of websites . . . maybe I'll have time to think this through soon.

  • Just in case you are curious, I wrote about this from the perspective of a museum curator for Museums magazine in January 2010.
    http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/newspin.cfm

    Also, have you seen Steven Rosenbaum's book Curating Nation?
    http://curationnation.org/

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