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June 10, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

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.

POSTED     June 10, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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