Why We Need "Curators"

The most contentious debate in media over the last few weeks has been about the concept of “curation” vs. “aggregation” vs. “creation.” What's the big deal? In part, says Brainpicker's Maria Popova, it's that “the cat video is the editorial cop-out.”

A few weeks ago, the online curator Maria Popova, known on the web as Brainpicker, unveiled a set of guidelines for attribution on the internet called the Curators' Code. The idea was to ensure that online influence itself is traced and attributed: "discovery honored," as Popova puts it. The challenging idea: That "curation" is "a form of authorship."

This proposal has proven surprisingly controversial. Software engineer and blogger Matt Langer best channeled the general indignation of techno-pundits at the idea of "curation" being a form of authorship, roaring: "[P]lease spare the rest of us all this moralizing on why we should be giving people who share links anywhere near the same amount of credit we afford [the] singularly special act of original content creation."

Yet, nobody's writing is worth a thing unless someone reads it. It is a little bit silly to equate Popova's work with "sharing links." The real question is: with whom? The traffic to Popova's website exceeds that of the New York Review of Books, according to Quantcast. There is no question that Popova and others in her line of work don't just bring audience; they also help to shape the public taste. She and others like her go around and learn all this stuff so we don't have to. And the recommendations of Popova, Kottke and all the other popular "curators" of the internet are not for sale — they're motivated by their own taste and curiosity.

The Curator's code proposed symbols for "via" and "hat tip."

To my mind, the Curator's Code was a bit misguided, insofar as it could easily be taken (and was often taken) to be a prescriptive message: "You have to attribute this way" rather than, "It is important to attribute." But I could certainly get behind a movement to acknowledge the democratization of authorship. Criterion Collection founder Bob Stein, who runs the Institute of the Future of the Book, said something to me in an interview nearly a year ago that I still think about all the time: "If the printing press empowered the individual [author], the digital world empowers collaboration." The evidence of this is clearer every day.

And yet, "the good work of others," "original content creation," and traditional notions of "authorship" are all being defended furiously, as if they were the most important part of the transaction. They are very important! But they're one of two essential halves. The salient point here is that those traditional notions of authorship are no longer adequate. They no longer describe the way we create or distribute information in the Internet age.

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