February 29, 2012
Everything is a remix. This great short film by Kirby Ferguson reminds us all that everything beyond the first atom splitting is essentially a remix. The universe and all parts of it are in constant change. Chaos is the norm.
Looking for originality and even the notion of creating something totally new—well, it's simply impossible. Once you come to terms with this, the world becomes a much more interesting place from a content creator's perspective. Staring at a blank page or canvas and trying to come up with something new is a daunting task. But a remix? A curatorial exploration of past creations? A gathering of things that already exist in order to provide a new perspective? How very metamodernist of us.
How We Consume Content
As a company that develops tools to empower other people who think about content and publications, we must embrace this idea and explore it fully to understand how to best craft our tools. It is not simply appropriate to think of content as "blurbs" (as discussed by Sara Wachter-Boettcher in her article Future-Ready Content) that exist in little bubbles. As the Web has evolved and the devices we use to view the Web have evolved, the idea of curation has taken some leaps ahead in terms of how we create, digest, and share content. While our own independent musings about the breakfast we ate or the asshole we had to deal with are fascinating to read on social networks, what is becoming more and more interesting is sharing what we are consuming in terms of other people's content. And those "other people" are becoming much more used to being interacted with.
Appropriation of Existing Content to Create New Content
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only a small portion of people on social networks like Facebook are actually "power users"—users that create content and perform actions on a regular basis. Many others are simply passively absorbing it, and some are curating it. By curating, I mean they are finding, rearranging, adding to, and then re-sharing things they find. If I had to only post original thoughts or creations on social networks, I would probably post 50% less than I currently do. What I do with the rest of that 50% is share, re-post, comment, like, or otherwise add my voice to an existing creation. The vast majority of Facebook users are reacting to outside curators seeking to engage with them, by reading a comment, accepting a friend request, or reading a message. Today, the experience of content creation is not a one-way street; there are those that are creating or curating the content or the interaction, and then there are those who react to it or interact with it.
As a collaborator I can now participate in many more conversations and experiences than I could before the Web. As a curator, I can now share more of the things that make up my world with far more people who have a variety of perspectives than I could before the Web.
The Blank Canvas is Not Blank
This new realm we exist in is what is propelling our clients to ditch their static Websites and their content blurbs and actually want to re-engage from a different vantage point. It's not about the visual design, the bells and whistles, the apps, the widgets, the customization—it's about the content. This realization struck fear in many when they first realized it. To focus on the content immediately puts immense pressure on the notion of creation. I went to art school and hold a BFA and a MFA, and still, standing in front of a blank canvas is intimidating. For people who aren't natural creators, imagine the stress! However, fret not, creators of the content—because as we know, it's more about curation than it is about creation.
Look at new services like Pictarine and Pinterest that have sprung up and become hugely popular in mere months. What is so appealing about these services? I believe they play to a natural human desire to share and curate things—in particular, images. It is human nature to collect, organize, approve, and curate elements in order to tell a story or preserve memories. And they allow us to create our own "exhibitions" by borrowing from others' collections or creations. Remember, everything is a remix, a collaboration, a bit of inspiration sparked from one source that carries over into a new one. Even as I write this post, I'm borrowing from concepts I've read elsewhere or gleaned from a conversation with industry peers or realized in a flash of inspiration while reading Sky Mall on an airplane. Thoughts, ideas, "content" don't originate from nothing. So how do we capitalize on this?
There are ways to help this become a workflow instead of a logjam. Of course, first you must know who you are and what your basic vibe is. Are you the MOMA or an independent gallery? Are you a high-end Mexican restaurant or a funky neighborhood joint serving local fare? Your "brand" sets everything—the "knowing" of who you are. Start there. Then, who are the players in your band? Who sings the songs or tells the stories or welcomes the eaters? We frequently talk with our clients about the importance of establishing governance and audiences.
You must start with the basics. Who is telling the story? And who is the story being told to?
The Artists' Tools
Now you have some guidelines—but still, everyone is frozen with fear. What do I write about? How do I start a story? Who takes the photos? I stare at blank boxes in my CMS, with [null] to inspire me. Here is where we feel the tools of content creation and generation must be improved. We must provide the same sandboxes we are experiencing throughout the rest of the Web within our content management systems. We must find ways to empower people to become curators as much as they are creators. We must also find ways to build on what we are already doing—snapping photos on our mobile phones, logging our geographic locations, re-posting from friends "social streams," and actively searching on the Web for things we are interested in. How much does Google assist in your daily conversations?
How do you start thinking about curation? A curator (from the Latin "cura," meaning "care") is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material. The object of a traditional curator's concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether they be inter alia artwork, collectibles, historic items, or scientific collections. More recently, new kinds of curators are emerging: curators of digital data objects, and biocurators. - Wikipedia. Hans Ulrich Obrist, a highly regarded art curator, states, "... I believe 'curate' finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life."
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
So am I a curator? Are you? If you are overseeing the interpretation of your brand, then you are indeed a curator. So now you have to learn to think like one. You have to break out of the content constraints that the infancy of the Web have taught you. Stop thinking of content as "Introduction," "About," "Contact," "News," "People," "Events," etc. How incredibly boring we have let content become! Yes, yes, your Website has to provide some basic functions formerly handled by the YellowPages and dialing information on the phone. However, beyond basic necessities of "action," I would argue that content can be much more exiting than we are giving it credit for. It doesn't need to be National Geographic-quality photos alongside an article about free-climbing Mount Everest in shorts and sandals. It doesn't have to be multiple paragraphs; it doesn't even need to include words. What it does need is "authenticity" and "perspective." Having something to say vs. just saying stuff is a big difference from your audience's perspective.
Have a Perspective
To be a curator, you have to ask yourself, what matters to me? If you are a company, a college, a group of people, or an individual, you have to have a position. This is the litmus test for what you care about and what you don't. It lets your audience know who you are and what they can expect when they engage with you. Some curators take huge risks and combine things previously never thought to share any similarities, but through the combination a new dialogue is created. The book The Medici Effect explores this process and some amazing results. Some curators reinforce a notion or support a proposition about a particular concept or historical period of time. Some curators invite public collaboration in order to create the experience. This collaborative and interactive process seems to be the nature of current curation online, and what people are being drawn to. We expect to participate, to engage, to see reality before our eyes, to have no filters or delays in place, no censorship, no central authority; almost defining such a lack of structure as "chaos" may be the current curatorial trend. Obrist continues in his article "To Curate," stating, "To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations." He finds that as we exist now in an era of overabundance and reuse, we must focus on what curation empowers us to do. "Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing."
The other notion I think we must address is the notion of randomness. Increasingly, we are exposed to the power of randomness, as we can see it unfolding every second of every day through multiple media that provide real-time sharing of events. This ability to see the world's events unfolding before our eyes in real time with no filter has an effect on our psyches. It is a constant reminder that the universe operates in a state of randomness. Chaos is more the norm than predictability. Scientists will tell you that embracing the unknown is one of the foundations of good science. Nothing can ever be exact, even in mathematics—a supposed exact science.
How does one embrace randomness while trying to curate? You need to have the ability to allow any new element or idea come into play within your curatorial toolkit at any time. You must not operate with a closed or restrictive set of parameters as you seek to curate. You need a very full palette of colors. The Web and those creating experiences on the Web are adding to these colors every day—and empowering us all to expand our resources as we seek to curate. For example, I used to think all I may want to do in order to act as a publisher would be to upload a picture and some words. Today, there is so much more that could be part of the story I am telling—through the act of curation. The picture comes from a subset of other pictures, not even taken by me, that share some similarities. I tag my picture with the word "universe," and the Internet and all the other publishers throughout the connected net allow me to open one window of my story to the concept of "universe." My words include references to a physical place, where people were meeting to discuss the universe. This place includes a whole myriad of additional information, created and curated by others, that may or may not make it into my curatorial process. Each person carries a string of data and images that I can summon from any number or online resources. My words combine to discuss an upcoming event, where people will gather at a place to discuss the universe, and now I'm able to cull a whole new type of elements, action elements, that have to do with registering, traveling to, and staying nearby for the event. As my story unfolds, I am naturally having to curate from all of these branches in order to facilitate the experience I seek to convey. The Internet and all the resources that have sprung up are offering us ways to more effectively curate. We are not creating the hotels we will link to or the people's bios we are including in our write-up of the "Universe Event"—we are choosing to provide access to them in a newly organized format in order to convey something new.
The Curator and the Craftsperson
I write about this from the mindset of a curator but also a tool maker. Our content management system, BigTree CMS, will soon be released as open-source software. As we make the final adjustments to it and consider how it must evolve, and how we hope the community will contribute to it, we recognize the power of collaboration and curation. One of our goals for BigTree always been that it not only be more of a "Content Curation System" as much as it is a Content Management System, but also a tool that can become stronger with the feedback of the community. We will look to the community, to the power of randomness and unpredictability, to help us chart our course. It makes no sense to sail this path alone when we have at our doorstep the ability to ask every drop of water in the ocean for input. We can only curate when we have a rich pool to draw from and the necessary tools with which to scoop them out and pour them into our new stew of ideas.
Going forward in your daily activities, try to put the emphasis on being a curator and see how it changes your approach and frees you up to be more prolific, engaging, and ultimately authentic. Joining the conversation is much easier than starting a new one in an empty room, and everyone has something to say.