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Is ‘curating’ the new editing?

August 17, 2010

Three sightings of the word ‘curating’ to mean an aspect of editing, all within the last couple of weeks, has sparked the thought; is this becoming a new meme?

First sighting: the Columbia Journalism Review ‘Transparency Watch‘ by Clint Hendler, in the July/August issue (p19 in the print edition) says that the White House was restricting photo ops; instead, the only record of official business was often ‘a single frame, curated by the president’s staff in accordance with the administration’s message of the day’.

Second sighting: on its Facebook page on August 9, ReadWriteWeb announces that it is ceasing auto-posting of content ‘in favor of a more curated experience’.

Third sighting: Vadim Lavrusik on Mashable writes on August 10: ‘The shift toward personalisation of news is in many ways a response to the problem of noise, but also a shift from trust in news organizations to the individual people you know who  now often act as curators.’ He notes the problem this poses concerning the credibility of the curator (ie his or her knowledge on or interest in a topic) and says the problem could be resolved partly by improving user filters, but also by ‘identifying specific sources and curators of information as more or less credible than others.’

The RWW announcement sparked a comment thread which explored issues of choice and delivery, and included a query from myself about the difference between curating and editing. In response, post author Seamus defined it thus: ‘I think of “curated” online the same as in art; you pick the stuff you think will wow them the most. I think of “edited” as taking a single thing and making it better. Option three: semantics!’

Another participant in the thread, Carlo De Marchis, then noted the discussion on his own blog, in a posting titled, ‘When auto-posting is not enough’. ‘The word “curation” – as i’m saying from this spring – is the new BUZZ in social media,’ he wrote, defining the term as ‘taking content from the twittersphere and select[ing] it and us[ing] it on your own online property as part of your content or to increase the relevancy of your own content.’

Thus alerted, I have carried out a quick online search for the term and see that it has indeed been cropping up for a few months. The origin seems to be consultant Sarah Rotman Epp, who wrote in her Forrester blog on May 14: “The iPad is a new kind of PC that ushers in an era of Curated Computing’ [caps hers]. This is defined as ‘a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences’.

Perhaps there is an even earlier mention out there; this article in Wired considers the precedents of her coinage, especially relating to Apple’s ‘locked-down approach’ to software and apps, but concedes: ‘However, Epps is onto something with this word, curated.’

My own, earlier, claim to use of the term is unfortunately not as well documented as I would like. In a draft of an (ongoing) doctoral dissertation, written three years ago, I defined editing in a generic fashion for comparative purposes, including selection, and drew analogies between editing and other forms of cultural mediation; art curating and music dj-ing were on the list. I then included the comparison in a presentation at University College Cork in April 2008, for the Second International Conference in ‘Making Books, Shaping Readers’, which I cited in an internal paper at UCL. My definition of editing is summarised in a Convergence journal article published this February.

I’d be interested in hearing about any earlier uses of ‘curating’ in non-art contexts, other definitions of curating and any ersatz thoughts about the evolution of its use.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan Norton permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:14 pm

    “Curating” would be more applicable to website in the sense that they are mixture of images and text that the viewer can choose to experience, and thus analogous to a gallery of exhibits, which would need a “curator” to make the initial selection. That’s certainly suggested by the White House example, which specifically relates to an image.

    “Editing” would be more applicable to a work that had to function as a coherent whole, as a book must do, even an anthology.

    A curator selects a set of items that the audience can make their own selection from; an editor makes a synthesis that the audience is presumed to experience in total.

  2. August 17, 2010 3:29 pm

    Thanks for your angle, Jonathan. I have just added a paragraph to the post, indicating how the comparison first caught my interest a few years ago. For me, it is the based on the element of selection involved in some forms of editorial intervention.

  3. August 17, 2010 3:53 pm

    The notion of blogging as curating has been around for a bit. The following article is the earliest piece on blogs in the Guardian.

    McClellan , Jim. “Easy as Falling off a Weblog; Jim McClellan Looks at an Attempt to Put the Net’s Mass of Information into Some Order .” The Guardian. June 3, 1999, 8.

    A few years ago, professional media types always seemed to log off from the web with the same complaint: very interesting, but what it needed was editors to filter all the junk, people who could provide a little quality control – people like them.

    But oddly enough, big media hasn’t really delivered. Sure, newspapers and media corporations have shovelled the content they create for print or TV on to the net.

    But the real editing job has been done at grassroots level by new media workers, designers, programmers and journalists, all usually working after hours on their own, all filtering the web in their own individual way to create sites known as weblogs.

    According to Jorn Barger, whose Robot Wisdom is one of the most popular weblogs (, the name refers to the fact that these sites simply log someone’s surfing, generating a collection of links to other stories online – some at big media sites, others at less well known locations.

    A weblog is usually updated on a regular basis (often daily), with the links often being the choice of one person. One of the best, Memepool (www., is a collective effort. Taking things even further, Slashdot (www.slashdot. org) features links to stories about Linux and other ‘news for nerds’, but lets readers add comments. The resulting threads often dwarf the original essay or news story.

    Often weblogs focus on one subject or industry. Dave Winer’s Scripting News (www., one of the first weblogs, highlights stories about programming. Jim Romanesko’s Obscure Store ( links to offbeat stories located in the middle pages of America’s myriad local papers. A weblog can be just a list of headlines/ links (then it is sometimes referred to as a newslog). But usually it’s a more personal affair. The creator adds personal commentary to the links chosen.

    ‘I believe the majority of my readers come to see what I have to say,’ says Cameron Barrett (CamWorld, www. ‘From experience, I can tell you that a site with nothing but links gets boring very fast. By being an active editor and commenting on the links I post, and intermingling them with the occasional essay or rant, my readers have come to know who I am and how I think.’ ‘I’m the guy who goes off the path,’ comments Jim Romanesko. ‘Recently, on Obscure Store, I linked to a piece in the Wichita Kansas Eagle. I suspect that 90% of the net doesn’t look at the WK Eagle usually. I deliberately don’t put in the stories that are on the big papers’ front pages. I assume my readers will see those anyway.’ Jorn Barger sees his info -foraging on Robot Wisdom as a kind of criticism. ‘I think web design is awful, and the weblog is my way of offering people an ‘alternative interface’ to sites/zines that don’t bother explaining what pages they offer, and don’t make it easy to track new content.’ Weblogs have become popular enough – Romanesko’s Obscure Store site gets about 35,000 visits a week to draw fire from conventional journalists who dismiss them as parasitic and unoriginal.

    Clearly, weblogs couldn’t survive without sites that generate the original stories, and as a result they’re not about to replace them. That said, even journalists find weblogs useful. Romanesko says his site is regularly visited by people from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Reuters. He points out that most webloggers are doing this in their spare time and just don’t have time to generate new stories. He has a day job covering the net for a Minnesota paper and has to get up at 5am every morning to do his site.

    You can see why big media concerns don’t like the idea of weblogs. They hate the idea of sending people off their own sites. In contrast, weblogs embrace the link, creating a new kind of journalism from it.

    A few years ago, musician Brian Eno wrote an essay about ‘the democratisation of curatorship’. His idea was that increasingly we valued people who make interesting selections of all the stuff that surrounded us.

    The standard model for this was the gallery curator. But Eno pointed to DJs whose fame was based on their ability to build mixes from other records. Perhaps the weblog is the online extension of this.

  4. August 17, 2010 4:06 pm

    Bunn, Austin. “Human Portals“. Brill’s Content. May 2001:

    Over the past two years, a wave of individual personalities — something between editors and conduits — has emerged, eager to curate the world via sites called “web logs.”

  5. August 17, 2010 6:49 pm

    Fantastic! Great stuff – thanks very much. (Someone should tell Wired)

  6. August 17, 2010 10:41 pm

    The word curator and curating has also cropped up in education and I believe it modeled both on the art context and on the blogosphere, which R. Ammann refers to.
    See George Siemens’ 2007 blog post on: Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching

    Consider our happy little edublogger world. Some members have been blogging for a long time (notably Stephen Downes, Will Richardson, Jay Cross). Through their established networks, they can serve important roles of guiding and directing others to resources and concepts. Their experience enables them to put new developments into a historical context. They assist others to create networks…but they do more. They serve as curators of ideas, connections, philosophies, and world views. They create frameworks of interpreting and understanding history, new technologies, and trends through their work and public dialogue.
    The joint model of network administrator and curator form the foundation of what education should be. An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored. While learners are free to explore, they encounter displays, concepts, and artifacts representative of the discipline. Their freedom to explore is unbounded. But when they engage with subject matter, the key concepts of a discipline are transparently reflected through the curatorial actions of the teacher.


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