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Maria Popova: In a new world of informational abundance, content curation is a new kind of authorship

Editor’s Note: Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curation of “cross-disciplinary interestingness” that scours the world of the web and beyond for share-worthy tidbits. Here, she considers how new approaches to curation are changing the way we consume and share information.

Last week, Megan Garber wrote an excellent piece on whether Twitter is speech or text. Yet despite a number of insightful and timely points, I’d argue there is a fundamental flaw with the very dichotomy of the question. While Twitter can certainly be both, it’s inherently neither. And trying to classify it within one or both of these conventional checkboxes completely misses the point that we might, in fact, have to invent an entirely new checkbox.

I, of course, make no claim to using Twitter as it “should” be used. But here’s how I use it, and it works for me, fitting my workflow, intellectual curiosity, and creative process: I use it as an information discovery tool. So I follow a small number of “linkers” — people who share links to interesting content, often content outside my own comfort zone, in at least 90 percent of their tweets. I in turn share links in just about every single tweet of mine, with a few words that summarize the linked content or a comment on why I find it noteworthy. Neither transactional direction of this discovery economy is conversation in the sense that speech is — fluid, sequential, responsive. And it isn’t text, either: There might be text that prefaces the recommendation, but it is merely the frame for the message being transmitted and a pointer to the real “text” (text, image, video — any actual content), rather than its substance.

Twitter as discovery

Like any appropriated buzzword, the term “curation” has become nearly vacant of meaning. But, until we come up with a better one, it remains the semantic placeholder that best captures the central paradigm of Twitter as a conduit of discovery and direction for what is meaningful, interesting and relevant in the world. Just as its origin in the art world, curation online is premised on the idea that a curator with a point of view culls content around a theme that he or she deems of cultural significance. A museum can make a name for itself by being consistently reliable in hosting these conversations (take the MoMA); likewise, a curator can make a name for herself by being consistently compelling in catalyzing those conversations (take Paola Antonelli). But the museum is merely the enabler of that conversation, the curator merely its catalyst, and the cultural conversation itself takes place largely outside the walls of the museum and the control of the curator.

When it comes to this curatorial, directional model of Twitter as a discovery mechanism, applying the conventions of speech or text to it is largely moot. Take, for example, the recently reignited debate about why the Library of Congress is archiving tweets and what it may mean. One major problem with that argument is link rot — the fact that a staggering amount of links go dead over time in a kind of reverse Moore’s law. We lose about a quarter of all working links every seven years, which deems any commentary around dead links devoid of context. (It’s interesting to note the evident etymology of “context,” which still rests on the foundation of “text.”) What this means for the “archiving of Twitter,” to stay with the museum analogy, is that the Library of Congress is essentially building a museum of soon-to-be empty frames. And that’s because the very premise of this project rests on the conventions of old media, where text is both the medium transmitting the message and the static, absolute container that holds it, a vessel inextricably linked to the essence of what it is conveying. On Twitter, however, the link — especially when it is literally a linked URL — is very much extricable, so we’ll have to invent a new model of “archiving” if we are really to preserve the full dimension, context, and cultural significance of these information nodes.

And lest we forget, text itself is an invention, a technology. We treat it, however, as a base-level given in thinking about the essence of a message or a piece of communication. When text first took root, it, like Twitter, unleashed a flurry of fear among the intelligencia of the day. Socrates famously lamented that writing will make us stupid because it’ll eliminate the need to remember things — and intellectual prowess, he believed, hinged on one’s ability to draw into a conversation myriad references, citations, facts, and allusions.

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is the contemporary equivalent of these Socratic fears. And while I deeply disagree with Carr’s core argument — I find it to be the modern-day version of Future Shock, the vintage techno-paranoia series narrated by Orson Welles — I do agree with Carr’s point that implicit to every technology is an “intellectual ethic” that shapes how we discover, acquire, and debate information and knowledge. (Let me footnote this by saying that, were I forced to acquiesce to a medium-first delineation of intellectual engagement, I consider myself a “book person.” While I spend an extraordinary amount of time on Twitter, I also read a lot of books, roughly 20 times the national average — and then I write about them, and then I tweet about what I’ve written — so my own relationship with “text” is a committed and loving one.)

Directional attention

So where does Twitter fit in? To use an example from my own experience, because this is all I can speak to, after all, I started my Twitter stream several years ago as an offshoot of Brain Pickings, which at the time followed a one-post-per-day format. I was starting to discover more content that answered to the same editorial standards of interestingness and significance, but couldn’t afford to write at length about all of it, so I started a Twitter feed almost like the film extras on a DVD, hoping existing readers would find additional treats there. But what ended up happening was essentially the reverse: The Twitter feed, perhaps because it allowed for more breadth and cross-disciplinary curiosity, took on a life of its own. It soon became the number-one discovery driver for new readers.

And here’s the kicker, the part that would leave Carr gobsmacked and his central argument groundless: While the majority of my readers now arrive at Brain Pickings through Twitter, a medium premised on brevity of thought and a dynamic ebb-and-flow of attention, the kinds of posts they most engage with on the blog are books. What’s more, they actually buy books — lots of them. (Which has been extraordinarily surprising even to me, as I originally considered my book recommendations to be mostly an exercise in fleshing out my own thoughts and keeping an organized record of my literary curiosity. I assumed those treatments would be among the least popular content for readers on the site.) The point here isn’t to sing my own praises as a book reviewer — I don’t actually consider myself one, as I simply recommend books; there are people who review them with more care, depth and literary cred than I ever could, and I’m more than happy to defer to them in what Jeff Jarvis calls the “do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem.”

The point is that new tools in general, and Twitter in particular, greatly challenge the binary dichotomy of attention as something that is either given or taken away, distracted. Instead, these tools allow us to direct attention to destinations where it can be sustained with more concentration and immersion. They offer a wayfinding system that is, on the whole, the polar opposite of traditional media’s: While “old media” fought against the scarcity of information, new media are fighting the overabundance of information. The resulting directional-curatorial nature of our communications tools is something that fits comfortably neither in the “text” checkbox nor in the “speech” one. It does, however, allow people to discover the most relevant, interesting, and impactful information, in any medium, and then relate it to other information in a networked ecosystem of meaning that helps us better understand the world and each other.

Perhaps more importantly than anything else, we seem to forget that Twitter is a constantly changing platform defined by its evolving social utility. Let’s not forget that the service began as a pet project at the intersection of SMS and instant-messaging, offering little more than a fun way for friends to keep up with each others’ nightlife whereabouts — a far cry from the kinds of uses we’ve seen lately, from gaining unprecedented access to world information and allowing news to break faster than ever, to enabling activists to organize and coordinate efforts more efficiently than ever, to building a large and loyal audience around your area of expertise. Many of Twitter’s features, from @-replies to the recently launched Twitter photo-sharing service, have been introduced by Twitter users themselves because the communication on this ever-changing platform demanded them. This constant shaping and reshaping of the medium and the types of messages it carries makes it short-sighted to attempt any sort of permanent classification.

Curation as authorship

Today, the two biggest question marks about Twitter’s evolution in my subjective experience are correction and attribution. The fact that there’s no present way of correcting an erroneous tweet remains an issue, especially as Twitter becomes more and more a tool of serious journalism, disaster reporting, human rights activism, and other issues of very palpable real-life impact. As journalists and curators, we remain human — which means we remain prone to everything from innocuous (and often humorous) typos to inadvertent yet serious misinformation. By the time we catch these errors, a tweet could have easily reached thousands of people. Erasing the original tweet will only remove those retweets sent through Twitter’s official RT button, and tweeting a correctional follow-up will only reach a fraction of the people who saw the original tweet. We need to invent a way to either correct core text in tweets retroactively, or to append correctional tweets to the original tweet so that everyone who retweeted it or otherwise linked to it gets an instant update of the correction.

The second issue is something I feel particularly strongly about. If information discovery plays such a central role in how we make sense of the world in this new media landscape, then it is a form of creative labor in and of itself. And yet our current normative models for crediting this kind of labor are completely inadequate, if they exist at all. We have clearly defined systems for what’s right or wrong in terms of crediting creative labor in “text” (or image, or video), from image rights to literary citations. But we don’t have the same ethical principles for sources of discovery. In a culture of “information overload,” though, it’s through these very nodes in the information ecosystem, these human sense-makers, that this very text or image or video finds its way into our scope of attention. Via-crediting, when given at all, lacks a codified morphology of credit types. (I’ve devised my own system, where I use “RT” for a verbatim retweet, “via” for reworded, and “HT” — “hat tip” — for indirect discovery, where I tweet a link I’ve discovered through something else that person shared or through their site rather than their Twitter feed. Adding to the taxonomy, some have also started using “MT” for “modified tweet.”)

Finding a way to acknowledge content curation and information discovery (or, better, the new term we invent for these fluffy placeholders) as a form of creative labor, and to codify this acknowledgement, is the next frontier in how we think about “intellectual property” in the information age. IP, as a term, is inherently flawed and anachronistic in its focus on ownership (“property”) in an age of sharing and open access, certainly. But it also challenges our most fundamental notions of authorship. As Bob Stein put it in his thoughtful 2006 critique of Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism, there’s an “emerging sense of the author as moderator — someone able to marshal ‘the wisdom of the network.’”

Ultimately, I see Twitter neither as a medium of broadcast, the way text is, nor as one of conversation, the way speech is, but rather as a medium of conversational direction and a discovery platform for the text and conversations that matter. Until we find new ways to classify, codify, and talk about this medium — new language, new laws, new normative models — our understanding and use of it will remain a museum of empty frames.

Images by Marc Wathieu, nualabugeye, and olalindberg used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Snop

    _microblogging_ ;-)

  • http://jaycollier.net/ Jay Collier

    Thank you, Maria, for articulating such a compelling context for Twitter as a new medium in its own right.

    I, too, use it to explore the world and share my discoveries, and I look forward to the day when doing so is widely recognized as a valuable creative endeavor.

    I will tweet this right away!

    @JayCollier:twitter 

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  • Anonymous

    Maria, as always you have given your readers a very insightful piece.  I think we are in an age where people are hungry for information and insight and twitter has become a tool that helps feed that need. And you are right–many commentators are missing the point because they are not drilling down into the real behavior of people using these tools as you have done. You have done so in a very compelling manner. Thanks! 

  • http://twitter.com/Revkin Andy Revkin

    A more straightforward word than curator, perhaps, is GUIDE. This is how I’ve been describing a durable approach to journalism in the information universe citizens now confront:

    “I think the best role for journalists with specialized experience is to
    serve as a guide, not as a reporter. I feel sometimes like an
    experienced mountain guide after an avalanche. I have a general sense
    of where to step and where not to step and what’s true and what’s false
    and where the path is but I’m not going to tell you I know for sure. If
    you follow me, you probably have a decent chance at coming out OK.” (from an interview while visiting U Conn. http://j.mp/revUConn ).

  • http://www.brainpickings.org Maria Popova

    I like that description, Andy, and have used it myself. (I often refer to what I do as “guided curiosity.”) And the mountaineer analogy is spot-on, especially as it pertains to source verification and credibility – entrusting editors, publishers and curators/guides to lead us to what is true. 

  • http://totthoughts.com/ Karla

    Maria – it is always a sheer pleasure to read your work. You captured the challenges inherent in this type of communication brilliantly and you raise some very important questions. You have become a leader not only in curated content but in the ever-pressing conversations we need to have about curating in general. Thank you for a wonderful read!

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  • Geoffrey

    Interesting article but all periodical media to date has
    been about ‘curating’; that is the selection of news and/or articles for
    publication in a single edition. It is usually called editing. The editorial
    expertise/bias is what usually creates brand identification and loyalty.

     

    The difference between traditional media and Twitter (and Facebook)
    is that now, through the latter, anyone can now create a reputation for
    ‘curating’ news and articles … but without commissioning or paying for the
    intellectual work involved in creating them.

     

    No-for-profit identification and sharing of links and
    enabling broader commentary is a wonderful, value-adding pursuit for a
    knowledge-based society.

     

    However, curators managing other peoples’ IP for profit,
    without payment to the creators, is an abuse that will be eventually addressed
    by courts.

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  • http://twitter.com/karensd Karen SchulmanDupuis

    This discerning voice with thoughtful insight and credible examination is why Maria is my favourite go-to on Twitter and why I trust her recommendations implicitly…an outstanding contributor to my own explorations…

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.j.maynard Mike J Maynard

    An interesting article, I’m still learning about Twitter and what it is, what I can use it for and why people follow me! I see it essentially as a portal to my blogs, although not a very good one. 

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  • http://jaycollier.net/ Jay Collier

    I think editing and curating are quite different.

    While editing may be about “the selection of news and/or articles for
    publication in a single edition,” as you wrote, curators create a context for those assets by annotating, reviewing, or pointing toward the original. With online curation, there is no need to “own” or republish the original asset in a “single edition.”

    Perhaps you’re conflating curating and republishing.

  • http://www.brainpickings.org Maria Popova

    Geoffrey, I see your point about editorial work always having been about framing what matters in the world, but I have to agree with Jay bellow that you seem to equate curating with mere reposting. I also have to reiterate the anachronism of talking about “intellectual property” in the age of sharing. 

    A great curator selects content that reveals patterns of culture, connects dots and makes people infer correlations they otherwise wouldn’t have. Though that curator may not “own” the content – it’s not her “property” – the act of pattern-recognition and culling itself is very much intellectual labor, whether it is monetized or not.

    Lastly, any mention of courtrooms and the law in this context, in my opinion, is like asking a colorblind person to make a life-and-death call by pressing the green or the red button. Until the legal system catches up with the evolution of creative and intellectual labor, no court can hope to uphold the standards of attribution with any sufficient degree of fairness.

  • http://twitter.com/MoMAlearning Beth Harris

    Great reading… thanks Maria! I hope one day we get to meet at MoMA!

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  • Owen booth

    Excellent stuff!

    Douglass Crimp’s 1980 essay “On the Museum’s Ruins” is becoming more and more relevant to this argument. Context is everything: as I tried to argue here.

    And Alan Jacobs has some great stuff on then limits of curation here

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  • http://twitter.com/RickWolfe Rick Wolfe

    What a wonderful article Maria Popova has written here. It’s wonderful in its conversational exaggerations, even as she suggests that Twitter is not a conversation because conversation only takes place in speech, not text. (Did I understand that correctly?) It’s wonderful in the quality of its curation, even as she wonders whether the term ‘curation’ has been emptied of meaning. I’ve come away with a better understanding of the role Twitter plays in discovery and directing attention. I’ve been given the opportunity to engage in debate about curatorial issues I need to grasp.
    In my view, Twitter is most definitely a conversation. The advice to think of Twitter as a cocktail party helped me enter and participate in the Tweetstream.
    One of the article’s claims can be used to illustrate the conversational nature of Twitter. Maria Popova says, ‘The fact that there’s no present way of correcting an erroneous tweet remains an issue.’ Why? Built into Twitter is a very simple, conversational, way of dealing with erroneous tweets. Others can point out the error. The writer can come back in a later tweet and correct the mistake … just as happens constantly in a conventional conversation. The ability of the error to spread through re-tweets will only becomes a major problem if the evidence shows that  misinformation consistently drives out the correct information. That is not the case.
    The inability to correct remains a small problem if we insist on seeing Twitter as conventional text, where words are taken as true just because they appear in the technology of text. Instead, if we see Twitter as an unfolding conversation, then our ability to be confident about earlier utterances is a gift. It would wreck the record of the conversation if people could go back and change what they had said.
    For those who savor conversations past, the Library of Congress’s Twitter archive also becomes a gift, and link rot a very big problem. Maria Popova is right, we will need to find a better way of archiving the conversation of links.
    Yes, ‘curation’ has been emptied of meaning on the web. Happily, Maria Popova is someone who practices the craft in a masterful way. She collects, she cares for the objects and texts that she gathers, she illuminates them so that we can see them clearly, she compares and contrasts items in ways that give them new meaning. She edits ruthlessly, so that we see just those things that we need to see in order to grasp this meaning. She operates transparently, so that we can validate her judgments. That’s what is meant by curation. If only others would start to use the word that way.
    My thanks to Maria Popova and also to
    Oojal Jhutti, @iamooj:disqus , for sending me to this link.

  • Anonymous

    Great thoughts Maria: I love the fact you go much beyond the usual clichés on curation.

    Wrt what’s missing, I like your points on Twitter but don’t you think we’re also missing a way to discover curators?

    In a people-centric space like Twitter, it can take a long time to discover great curation work done by people who are not celebrities.

    We’re trying to ultimately work on that at Scoop.it (Disc: I’m the CEO) by working with a topic-centric approach and trying to enable topic discovery over time so that anonymous curators can be found if they’ve done a great curation work on a particular topic.

    Time will tell whether we have the right approach but I feel this is missing too.

  • http://jaycollier.net/ Jay Collier

    One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I can explore my interests by following people and curating them over time. The taxonomy is my own, I define my own pathways.

    I’ll be honest in saying it’s been harder to select among great microbloggers than finding them!

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  • http://twitter.com/jfedor Jeff Fedor

    Nice article. A couple of years ago, I noticed I stopped using RSS Readers (and my fancy add ons) in exchange for letting my Twitter stream be my news discovery tool. I follow interesting people and they tweet interesting (and breaking) information. 

    The terms discovery and directional attention ring very true with me.

  • Lizabeth Hannaford

    Same here, Jeff. I never really liked RSS readers – they always seemed to nag me by showing how much stuff I’d failed to read.  I can’t even remember the last time I used RSS and now rely almost entirely on Twitter to guide me to the stuff I need to read.  It doesn’t matter if I miss it the first time around.  If it’s good enough, it’ll come round again through one of the other “nodes” I follow.
    Great article, Maria.  Thanks for finding the words and terminology to describe the evolving world of Twitter.

  • Lizabeth Hannaford

    Same here, Jeff. I never really liked RSS readers – they always seemed to nag me by showing how much stuff I’d failed to read.  I can’t even remember the last time I used RSS and now rely almost entirely on Twitter to guide me to the stuff I need to read.  It doesn’t matter if I miss it the first time around.  If it’s good enough, it’ll come round again through one of the other “nodes” I follow.
    Great article, Maria.  Thanks for finding the words and terminology to describe the evolving world of Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/marklewis_sf Mark Lewis

    great article form @brainpicker:disqus  on Twitter’s real role in life
     

  • http://twitter.com/MarkZorro Mark Zorro

    IMHO, I think we get too focused by the doorway we go through rather than observant of the room we are entering.  That can be a library room, a sofa conversation room, a kitchen party room, a watching media room, a fun and play room, so this is where discussing the door, which is twitter, which is disqus, which is you-tube, which is google etc etc etc is less fundamental than the room with a view.

    I think all previous forms of media have opened up new doorways, but it is the sheer scope, diversity and size of the thinking rooms we are entering with any form of media that crosses spectrums and boundaries, which stands at the core of how we personally grow in information leadership.

    The social rooms have been discussed widely but I think we have strayed away from the personal rooms where reflection, appreciation and personal study are among the personal touches, which I do think lead to new forms of behaviour, simply because the new rooms we are entering are as infinite, as capable and as challenging as the thinking room in our own head.

    We love to talk about a connected village, a wisdom of the crowds and social graph, without closing the last mile of the thinking room, which is how each individual is either mastering, shaped by or forming, the information space they have entered. 

    This is emergent, and we know that as information convergence spreads, the divergence is the outward transformation in how see the world, how aware we are becoming, how all of this is adding to, and not simply curating, to this learning we call education, to this discovery we call media, to this relationship we call health.

    I do like to think that content curation is the convergence but that context curation is the divergence.  Though we talk about wisdom of the crowds at a group level, there is also the antithesis of that, which is to be crowded out, to be submerged by attention, rather than released and made free with how we attend.  It is how we attend the new thinking rooms which these new doorways have opened that are interesting to me.

    This is why I would just like to play with this thinking room and see where it takes me, but not be crowded out or modified in my outlook or behaviour because of a gathering crowd.  “Let my people go surfing”, the kind of attitude fostered by people like Yvon Chouinard is more personally interesting to me, than to sit in awe of the new level of relational contectedness.

    What ever form of curation we endeavour, whether it is content curation or context curation – it isn’t a walk in the park, it isn’t some magic pixie dust which transforms our lives because we have been given a new outlook – that is us simply standing by the door, not really venturing any further than the admiration of our particular doorway.  

    I was never a book reader, and it has taken well over a decade to get me reading a little bit more.   My personalized use of twitter is allowing me to make those discoveries, which in turn juice my mind and it is that enlivening of the new thinking rooms I venture into, which in turn have led me to purchase books I never would have in the past.

    Right now I am reading Albert Camus, The Rebel.  It isn’t a book I picked up overnight, but over the last year, I have finally opened the covers and instead of standing at the doorway of simply talking about the book I would like to read, I am now in the thinking room of Camus itself – and the more I read him, the more I am making adjustments to what has always been in my a life, a rebellious nature. 

    So life today is becoming a paradox – one which we are all together and the world says “come join us” and one where we still need our own individual space, even one that has a context of “please leave me alone”.  We can be in two places at once and benefit from both contexts.

    I cannot draw a neat conclusion or craft a fine point, so readers can stand at my own doorway – I know there is much in the thinking rooms I have so far ventured into, but I cannot allow conclusion, or a statement that I have “discovered something” to simply get in the way. 

    Of what?  Of an adventure, of my own freedom to pursue and ultimately this isn’t simply about the context of online doorways, but also offline doorways such as my public library.   To attain leadership of my own information space is a personal decision, but I do agree that curation is a distinct competency, if not a new type of authorship on such a journey.

    M.

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