The Case Against Curation

by Randy Murray on November 28, 2011

There are times when our use of language shifts and the meaning of words is altered. I typically don’t fight against it. But this current hijacking of the word “curation” to mean “a list of things on other web sites that I link to” is a poor word choice.

A curator is someone who is responsible for the care and conservation of something. A curate, for example, is responsible for the souls in a congregation. A curator is responsible for a collection in a museum. A curator is not responsible for a list of favorites in other museums.

A web site or a blog with links pointing to other web sites or blogs is not being curated. Such things are lists. There may be commentary, but by the very nature of the web, the person assembling the links does not have primary responsibility to care for the linked things. He or she has no control over them. They are not preserved and maintained by the one who links to them.

It’s the wrong term.

To force its use brings in all sorts of unhelpful, dissonant associations. Curation is more about care than collecting and displaying. And its use takes on air of false academic rarity and sophistication. You can’t call it a thing and make it so. If my grandmother had wheels she’d be a wagon.

Be honest. Providing links and commentary is a valuable service. It is an art form, but it is not curation. Some of my favorite daily reads do just that: sites like Boing Boing, Fark, and MinimalMac are terrific. But they’re not museums or libraries or zoos. They exercise no care or control over the things that they link to. They spread the word, but they preserve nothing.

There’s another, better term that is more accurate, a better fit. It doesn’t sound as highfalutin’, though.

It’s called “reporting.” All of these sites are doing journalism. It’s news, not a museum.

And my suggestion is this: embrace the term reporting. It’s a noble profession. And it needs more good people practicing the art.

Update: See more I have to say here: More about (and against) Curation.

The Case Against Curation by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Schechter November 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

Darn you for getting my wheels spinning :)

I probably should let this mull a bit more I jump in, but I tend to have some pretty strong thoughts on the subject.

Even if curation is the wrong word, I’m almost certain reporting is as well. Just putting up a picture of something isn’t reporting, it’s as much a misuse of the term as you are saying curation is.

I tend to use the word curation for what you’re describing (so forgive my potential misuse here). I also claim to curate in this manner, so perhaps this is self interest speaking. But every day, I read and take things in. Every day, I’m inspired, moved, angered, enlightened by the words of others. Every day, I fall in love with a specific turn of phrase and since I have the memory of a goldfish, I use Tumblr to store them for myself while sharing them with others with the hope that they too might be inspired, moved, angered or enlightened as well

If it doesn’t have a name, it needs one. Although I think it already has a fairly good one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_curation

I may not have a museum behind me, I may not have ownership over the words I share, but I can tell you I care for them. I can tell you that I look to them for inspiration every single day. I can tell you that I hope others see them and get a glimpse at what I felt without my needing to add context. I hope the words speak for themselves and that is something apart from reporting.

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Randy Murray November 28, 2011 at 10:41 am

Caring about things and sharing them isn’t curation. It’s the caring FOR things that makes it curation.

I do think reporting is the right term for what you describe — you see things and report on them to others. Don’t get hung up on the connection of reporting and news reporting. Caring about something and sharing that thing with others is an important aspect of the internet.

I will point out that the wikipedia article you point to focuses on the storage and maintenance of digital assets. It says nothing about just linking to them.

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Michael Schechter November 28, 2011 at 10:59 am

Before I dig in, I don’t want it to sound like I’m being cranky, just really find this interesting and LOVE me a semantic debate.

While you’re certainly right that it doesn’t refer to the linking of things, it certainly talks about the importance of reference in the present and future by other researches, scientists, historians and scholars. That certainly implies sharing.

This is from the wikipedia page for Curator:

“Curator responsibilities

In smaller organizations, a curator may have sole responsibility for the acquisition and care of objects. The curator will make decisions regarding what objects to collect, oversee their care and documentation, conduct research based on the collection, provide proper packaging of art for transport, and share that research with the public and scholarly community through exhibitions and publications.”

That last bit is an important one, or at least it is to me. Curating in private is all well and good, but curating in public is where I truly think the work becomes important.

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Randy Murray November 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm

If you remove the collecting and caring for part, what you’re left with is the scholarship. That, by itself, is not curation. It’s research, it’s scholarship. That’s well understood in the academic setting. You’d never call someone who researches, writes, and publishes a curator. So why do bloggers and web authors claim that title?

It doesn’t fit.

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Michael Schechter November 29, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Then maybe the right term is referencing.

I think they claim it because there is no closer term. I 100% agree with you that once you add context, things change. But simply linking or embedding something does not equal reporting or editorializing (yes, there is some implicit, editorializing in the act of selection, but we’ve already split enough hairs, havent we :) ).

Sorry, enjoying this debate, feel free to smack me.

Charles December 1, 2011 at 8:45 am

“Linking” is the word for what linkers do.

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