The Power and Limits of Curation

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

curation, publishers, books, readers, consumersWe’re all drowning in content. From long-form writing on LinkedIn and Medium to snackable content in our Twitter and Instagram feeds, to the explosion of self-published books, we’re inundated with options. Eliot Peper said it well:

Blogs made everyone a journalist. Self-publishing made everyone an author. YouTube made everyone a filmmaker. Itunes made everyone a musician. Publishing houses, record labels, and newsrooms have lost their long-held position as gatekeepers of taste.
How do you make sense out of this flood of content?

People try to use Google to navigate the flood. But that only works if you know what you’re looking for. Googling “Elon Musk Biography” is likely to get you where you want to go; Googling “What should I read next?” will not. In business, analytics dashboards and big data are great at answering questions, but poor at figuring out what questions to ask.

People hunger for authentic, relevant content, not listicles of top 20 crap. To that end, they’re turning to curators to surf the flood of content. If Ryan Holiday says a book is “life-changing,” it’s worth a look. Maria Popova at Brainpickings produces a mini-flood of fascinating articles and literary expositions. Jason Hirschhorn’s MediaRedef is an awesome curated set of commentaries on the media. And that’s not to mention the still-high-quality “institutional” curators: the New Yorkers, Guardians and Wall Street Journals. The proliferation of free content challenges their businesses, but they still produce large quantities of quality writing.

Even tech companies are getting into the game. Apple Music leans hard on curators to select fresh, interesting music. Product Hunt, previously focused on crowdsourcing the discovery of cool startups, is getting into the curation business through its Product Hunt Books initiative. Many companies are even embracing branded content curation as a marketing tactic.

The Power and Limits of Curation

Curation as a discovery method has a lot going for it:

• Curators have great “taste” in a well-defined area. If I am interested in literary fiction, I want to know what James Wood at The New Yorker is writing about.
• Curators see connections and patterns that machines miss. A machine may not see that The Snow Leopard and Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are both Zen travelogues, but a perceptive curator will.
• Curation provides “smart” aggregation. Machines can aggregate a lot of content, but they may not put the right things together. A human can produce something like  “Here’s what George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss both think is a great fantasy novel.”
• Curators have aligned incentives. Retailers are often incentivized to push the wrong items on you. They may be getting paid to promote an item or have better margins on it. Many media outlets are chasing the controversy, click-baiting you with attention-grabbing items. Curators often don’t do it for the money at all. Their incentive is to bring you interesting things that align with their personal brand.

But if curation is so great, why isn’t everyone getting their content this way?

Curation has three shortcomings:

• The curator isn’t always for you. If I don’t care for literary fiction, keeping up with James Wood doesn’t help me.
• There are too many of them. Just keeping up with the curators mentioned here could take an hour a day. There are hundreds of thoughtful, interesting people writing about a given topic. Who has time to wade through all that?
• It requires pro-activity. I still have to visit each of those curator’s sites to see what they’re writing about, or even if they are writing. I don’t have time for that, and even if I do, I’ll likely forget to.

Toward a New Information Consumption Paradigm

What if there were something that knew the curators you valued and was constantly watching what they’re up to? Alerting you when they’ve curated something you’ll like? Something that would pro-actively “aggregate the curators?”

Let’s call this “personalized curation.” We’re seeing the beginnings of it with music (Apple Music & Shuffler.FM), news (Nuzzel, Quibb), and we’re starting to see glimpses of it in publishing. Domain-specific (vertical) experiences also allow for easy consumption of the discovered content. For example, when Apple Music brings me an interesting song, I can listen to it.

In a broader way, Google Now and Flipboard are headed in that direction. But because they are domain-agnostic, they can’t offer a deep understanding of my personal interests and they can’t easily facilitate consumption (I can’t easily discover and listen to music on Flipboard).

Neither curators nor algorithms alone can solve discovery. The combination of curators and algorithms holds great promise, though. As a consumer, how do you deal with the tidal wave of content and books? And as a brand, where does curation sit in your strategy?

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7 thoughts on “The Power and Limits of Curation

  1. Michael W. Perry

    You fail to mention perhaps the best curators of all—friends and colleagues who tell us about books, movies and music. For many of us, our personal tastes are a bit too complex to be sorted out by software. Just because I read one book on a topic doesn’t mean I want to read more. Often that one read is to answer a few questions. Once answered, I lose interest in the topic.

    I laugh when I get an email from Amazon displaying what it thinks is my taste in books. For a time Amazon thought I was a zealous reader of romantic fiction. Why? Because I’d downloaded a free copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice to study her excellent literary skills.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

    1. Mark Watkins

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the comments! Recommendations from friends is a double-edged sword, at least for me. On the one hand, I know and trust them and vice versa. On the other hand, my friends generally don’t read what I read, so their recommendations are often similar to Amazon’s – a quality book, but not for me.

      Your point about reading only one book on a topic is very interesting and apropos, and I think captures the mercurial nature of our reading desires. It’s hard for any one person, friend or curator, or piece of software, to capture all the influences on what we read. I think the best we can do is surround someone with great, topical options and let them take it from there..


  2. Obie Akpachiogu

    There will never be a perfect solution to curtailing information onslaught for the consumer. While curators and algorithms can narrow information feeds it is the ultimate responsibility of the consumer to decide what gets his attention. Curators will do well to use proper taxonomy to arrange the information they present to consumers. For example I use book summary services to discover good books to read in depth but one service offers up to 10K books in the summaries library. That in itself is overwhelming but they’ve done well to use taxonomy (classification,tags,keywords etc) to help consumers like me drill down to the books that will be of particular interest.

    1. Mark Watkins

      Thank you Obie. Taxonomies and classification are important tools, and the combination of aggregated curation together with personalization techniques can make use of both sets of information. That’s what I meant when I said “the curator isn’t always for you” – they may curate books outside your interests. Taxonomies and classification provide a way to narrow down the curated set to things of interest to an individual.

      Still, the classifications given to books is often limited. For example, I read a lot of historical fiction. But I have specific interests: the medieval period, and the ancient greeks and romans, and usually those books are simply tagged “historical fiction” – far too broad a category to be useful to me. If the information value chain from authors to publishers to distributors to retailers could go deeper on metadata (no small task), it would help immensely. Thanks!

    1. Mark

      🙂 Agreed Natalie. Librarians make (are) great curators. I wish more of them published their thoughts in blogs or other digital forms so that more people had access to their knowledge. And for sure there are some amazing curators that aren’t librarians 🙂



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