The word “curator” has become diluted, applied to anyone who chooses anything. Nonetheless, we live in an era where people all over the world are producing art and information every day, with far wider distribution and greater output than ever imagined, thanks to the Internet, cellular and WiFi technology, and the proliferation of digital cameras. This bounty leads to several problems:
- Selection: How can a variety of items related to a particular topic be found? How do we find quality among the quantity?
- Trust: Is this quote correctly attributed? Was this image or video altered? Is the caption correct?
- Context: Does the presentation impose a bias? How is this connected to other things?
- Archiving: Will this material exist and be accessible in 5 years? 20? 100?
The extension of the title “curator” to include editors/writers on blogs and social media is usually based on only one or two of those issues, but all four are included in the job description of an institutional curator, who is generally tasked with the choice, interpretation, and preservation of relevant items. Coming from an anthropology background, I tend to associate curation with cultural artifacts, from Pacific Island tribal masks to original manuscript pages from Borges to paintings by Magritte, but curators can work in many places and deal with a vast variety of topics. Digital curation is a graduate school option — one of my friends recently finished a Masters degree in it — though it still seems to be closely tied to museums and institutions.
In the absence of a formal system of curators for the living, everyday Internet, how are we meeting some of the needs above? What problems are associated with that? Is there a place for professional curators?
My original title for this post was “Facebook is a shitty museum”, a statement which didn’t cover the breadth of material I wanted to discuss but alluded to the idea that we are all curators now. Let’s take my Facebook feed as an example. My Friends list might be more diverse than many, but it’s far smaller than average, with only 160 people. Perhaps 40 of them post on a regular basis. If I weed out the personal posts, I can start to see each person as a type of curator for particular topics. Michelle* shares things about women in technology. Carson shares comics, convention, and superhero things. Lanisha and Sha’nel both post about being black women in the entertainment industry. Scott posts about fibromyalgia, Lenore posts about autism. Ricky posts about cars. Ben posts about religion and conservative politics. Jimmy and Ron both post about guns and gun control, on opposite sides. Several people post about parenting. Lana posts about music. Brenda posts about workouts, Savannah and Paula post about yoga, Sven posts about competitive swimming, Mike posts about wrestling. Daniel posts about new technology. Tammy and Becka post quick and easy recipes.
Some of them are really interesting and give me insight into different worldviews, but are they curators? No, not by a long shot. Going back to the four items with which I began this post, my Facebook friends do provide selection of topics that interest them. Some of them try to verify things they share but others don’t, so they don’t all provide trust. They all add personal bias, so the context is skewed by the nature of sharing items on Facebook. None are involved with the archiving of those items. They’re enthusiasts, hobbyists, fans, collectors, and perhaps even subject matter experts, but not curators.
Let’s look at those four items, starting with selection. If I want to find online items related to a certain topic, I will probably begin with a Google search. What I’m presented with is not the result of careful evaluation of quality, it’s a list of sites ranked by their use of search engine optimization techniques. However, those results will include sites that provide some degree of selection: niche websites, themed blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, etc. Because many of these sources are trying to parse relevant items from the nonstop inflow of created content, it might be more accurate to think of them as filters, but some try to go deeper and pull from the vast Internet repository to select topical pieces. The results are incomplete, though. Many archives are not available on the open web and we’re all limited to some degree by language and imposed content restrictions.
When I discover a source that regularly shares items that interest me, I follow or bookmark it. Sometimes that is based on the topic, but often it is based on the preferences of the person or team that maintain the site. For example, I read GoodShit all the time (NSFW, lots of female nudity), not because of a particular topic that Fred covers, but because he regularly links to items I find interesting, challenging, and new. I don’t mind scrolling through topless and spread-legged naked models to get to those. In a way, I think of GoodShit as a museum I visit often, where I walk through some of the galleries to get to the displays where I really want to linger.
One weakness in this system is that it’s easy to build ourselves echo chambers, where we select sources based on quality but also — consciously or not — because they tell us what we want to hear. Someone else is selecting the content, but I’m selecting the selectors. I see a sign of this bias kick up on Facebook when a friend, usually from the far conservative side of the aisle, posts, “The media reported about X nonstop, but why aren’t they talking about Y?!?!”, yet I’ve seen an abundance of coverage of both topics. My friend may have isolated himself from news sources that provide equal coverage (or, he may be using indignant, victimized rage as an indirect way of expressing controversial opinions). He’s not the only one who might have an echo chamber, though. Because I tend to avoid mainstream news networks, I may be shielding myself from a true imbalance in coverage. This starts to bleed into the context issue and can make it difficult for us to understand the worldview of others who have been informed by different media.
If we select selectors who don’t make trust a priority, things get even worse. We can’t believe everything we read, nor can we believe the content of photos or videos. How many times do you see something that’s clearly fake spread across the web like wildfire? Especially with echo chambers of sources we consider credible, but that reflect our own political, social, and religious views, healthy skepticism tends to evaporate.
Though there are some telltale signs that an item might not be true, sometimes it has truthiness and we need to look further. Many of us turn to Snopes.com for fact checking (though I’m getting database errors all over their site, so I guess everything is true today!). Scroll partway down the page of this reddit thread and you’ll find a list of other sites that are useful for debunking. The Antiviral sub-blog on Gawker regularly posts “Forward or Delete” pieces that investigate images widely shared that week, verifying or debunking them, and often sharing the source photos that were combined to create the fake. No, John Lennon was not riding a skateboard in the original version of the photo above.
There are many motivations for creating fake content. Sometimes it’s for humorous effect or to display technical ability, as in Worth 1000 contest entries. A desire for attention. Political persuasion. Advertising. Trolling. Slander. We get so used to seeing photoshopped images of celebrities that it can alter our perceptions of what looks natural; one of my acquaintances seems to think we won’t notice when her face — and only her face — is softly blurred, completely line-free, and luminous in all of her group photos. Poorly altered images appear even when they should have passed through levels of approval; take a few minutes to visit Photoshop Disasters for some laughs and groans.
Hunger for cheap and easy content makes a lot of websites untrustworthy, whether they are personal blogs or professional, journalistic sites. For many examples, read this piece by John Bohannon about all the places that ran with his unsubstantiated story about chocolate helping weight loss. He explains that well-done research — especially in diet science — is often contradictory and confusing. When junk gets distributed so widely, it adds to the noise. People feel overwhelmed, which I think plays a part in unscientific thinking among otherwise educated individuals. Clickbait headlines make scientific findings seem like absolutes, rather than things that must be challenged and explored, so refinements and corrections appear to be contradictions. Whether clinging to the notion that vaccines cause autism, climate change is entirely natural, or that juice cleanses are healthy, the echo chamber effect and proliferation of junk science articles allow people to reject other opinions and find support for their own.
On to context. I first began musing on Internet curation a few years ago when I was taking an ethnographic film course. We were debating whether it was more valuable to have a filmmaker inside or outside the group being studied, and my professor cited a few instances of films made by insiders. I argued that there was more insider filmmaking being done than we acknowledge, in homemade videos shot with phones and old camcorders, sometimes uploaded to the web. What we lacked was curation. Nobody was collecting, sorting, clarifying, and saving those videos. The short video below shows part of a 2014 Vodoun festival in Benin. Note the different types of cameras being used and who is holding them. It isn’t just the white tourists and academics anymore.
If that video was your first introduction to a Zangbeto, though, do you have any understanding of what you saw? There are many videos of Zangbeto on YouTube, but few of them have meaningful descriptions. The videos that are likely to survive for the future are those from institutional users — anthropologists, sociologists, historians, students of religion and dance — and not those taken by insiders, unless someone begins to collect them and add context, preserving them in a relevant way.
Context is what can change a selection into a meaningful experience. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, as a physical world example, has many areas with excellent collections but terrible context. (The website makes the place look lively and interactive. It’s not.) When we were there, we often had the impression that they felt the need to put ALL THE THINGS on display and hoped that stacking them in the same room would create a compelling story. They would have been better off to showcase some items and include others in the context around them. I think that the Gawker properties do a decent job of adding context to items they find, particularly io9, Gizmodo, and Jalopnik, though I get aggravated with how often they share posts across the Gawkerverse without changing the context to show how the item is on-topic for that blog.
Context is also another place to check bias. It is factual to say that on August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the Internet explosion around that event, the context makes all the difference. To one extreme, he was an innocent black teenager murdered by a racist. On the other extreme, he was a criminal thug killed in self-defense. I could point to sites, memes, and videos that are entirely biased, ignoring or discrediting any facts that don’t fit the preferred narrative. I linked to a New York Times overview of the event as the most even-handed I could find, but I don’t believe that they, or other journalists, are unbiased. I think the key isn’t to avoid sources that have biased context, but to be aware of it and consider other viewpoints as well.
That leaves archiving on my list of four issues, and it’s completely neglected in the diluted definition of curation, where the final step is to publish or share. The Library of Congress is archiving Twitter, but so far, this Politico article describing it as “a huge #FAIL” seems appropriate. And, most of what they have to archive so far is just text and images, not multimedia in a variety of obsolete formats! This short video from Al Jazeera America (which I can’t seem to embed) gives an overview of the Internet Archive, which stores snapshots of as much of the web as possible. You can browse previous versions of websites via the Wayback Machine. What’s actually captured is useful but limited. Sometimes images don’t appear and often comments on articles are lost. Going back only as far as 2011, there were some weeks when the Wall Street Journal site was only crawled two or three times, and that’s a significant website among the estimated 48 billion webpages today. The New Yorker published a good piece about the Internet Archive a few months ago, too.
When I’ve had to purge items from my own digital archives because of lack of technical compatibility, I can’t even begin to think about the challenge of archiving the Internet; not just preserving it, but indexing it so that it can be used for research. I’ve been in the basement of the Field Museum in Chicago, looking though the amazing anthropology collection that is sorted, labeled, carefully preserved, but too vast to be on display to the public. I understand that sort of archive, but when we try to save all digital content — from research articles to ragequit screeds to breaking news to photos of a dinner burrito — the scale is mind-numbing.
Is there a place for professional Internet curators? I think so, but I’m having difficulty envisioning where and how they might work.
When I discussed this with my husband, he suggested that in the future, it would be easier to research American daily life in 1915 than in 2015, because — I’m rephrasing — so many of our current cultural artifacts are digital. I think that’s partially true. It also made me consider horrible PhD dissertations of the future: “Facets of the Selfie: The Evolution of Duckface”, “What Americans Ate: Revelations from the Instagram Archive”, or “‘U Mad Bro?’ and the Rise of Flexible Spelling”. Part of the (future) problem is that it may not be easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. How will researchers grasp subtleties from the data that survives? Things that went viral, even briefly, may seem disproportionately important as they appear in higher concentration. Eeek.
I think we can be mindful about our selectors, push them to be trustworthy, and think critically about the context. We can hobble together those parts of curation now. Archiving, as it has been for physical artifacts, seems to be the domain of institutions.
So I’m sorry, but I won’t call you a curator if you have a topical Tumblr, are picky about your Pinterest board, or share nothing but awesome street art photos on Facebook. Be proud to be an enthusiast, editor, or collector! On the other hand, we need to look at the sources that provide some elements of curation and hold them to a higher standard. That’s a lot to ask of people who are volunteers, but it shouldn’t be too much for professionals. I’d like to suggest that they:
- Dig deeper. Don’t just funnel the latest news. Be thinkers, not filters.
- Be more inclusive. Push beyond English and corporate source material.
- Verify. If you’re not sure of authenticity but it’s really interesting, include that caveat. Otherwise, act as if you must personally support the validity of what you post.
- Be wary of absolutes. We’re at a point where it’s important to think of continuums and gradients in many facets of life, and we need people to step up intellectually and understand that. It’s weak writing to couch everything in words like possibly, maybe, as of now, and so on, but it’s detrimental to declare each new discovery as THE answer, too.
- Add useful context. Sharing a link without context is for amateurs. (Amateurs, go for it! This is how we find so many interesting things.)
- Strive to avoid bias. Or, make it blatant and let your audience decide to stay or go.
- Support archiving. Make sure your material has useful and relevant metadata, not only for SEO but also for human access. Archive your own things. Donate to archiving institutions.
*Names have been changed, of course.