Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Curation Nation

I found this book, written by Steven Rosenbaum, founder of, under my Christmas tree and figured I had better read it before the digital world turns again. And this is the challenge associated with writing about curating the web and other brave new worlds. There are always enough  technology-challenged folks in the US Congress who want to adopt draconian measures like SOPA, that will finally bring Internet piracy to heel. So you never know.

That said, I like this book, the keen insights and the solid research. I'll hand it to Rosenbaum: it's not easy to discuss curation, an art that has long been exiled to the local museum, as the new post-aggregation tool that will finally put human intelligence where it belongs: shoulder-to-shoulder with the muscular algorithm. 

The author's history of curation is interesting and useful. Everything old is new again--if you throw in a few million videos. He is certainly correct about Reader's Digest being one of the first and best magazine examples of curation; classic in every way. The challenges Reader's Digest faces today are more about demographics and digital extensions than the business of creation. One could argue the publisher was in a better position than most, early on, to develop curation as an important part of its cross-platform growth. Rosenbaum gets it right: content makers have to become content curators to grow. The Huffington Post understands this. People don't want to just consume information; they want to participate.

The content entrepreneurs the author invokes are well-known. Rosenbaum gives good coverage. About, with subject guides for about 750 content areas, seemed a very good idea from the beginning. I cut my teeth on special interest magazines and thought this company had found the perfect content and advertising formula that was testimony to a familiar mantra: specialists win. About appears not to have lived up to earlier expectations, at least on the part of investors.

The author seems to understand that it is a little trickier for glossy magazines at the top of the editorial food chain to embrace curation in the fullest sense.  For the sake of discussion Rosenbaum differentiates between content creation, content aggregation, and content curation, with the acknowledgement that these are not neat categories and magazines to varying degrees have been in the game of aggregation and curation for some time. New York Magazine and NY Media are rightfully cited as an example of a business that has successfully curated content across the magazine, blogs, and various web sites. has significantly enlarged the practice of curation by incorporating a sizable number of appropriate web videos on the site. Digital revenues are through the roof.

So, curation without expertise is just scrapbooking. It's not about magazines per se. Rather about "magazining--a fun reading experience with great design and all the audio and video links that the Web makes possible." Curation is an evolutionary step beyond blogging.

The book examines a few of the machines that create content, such as Demand Media, Yahoo's Associated Content and AOL's Seed. It is no longer news that these services, especially Demand, are considered by many a race to the bottom and an insult to mainline journalists. The Man vs. Machine is a good headline but at the end of the day I suspect the market will address these offerings.

For the last five years I've been watching blog networks such as Blogher, Glam Media, and SB Nation as examples of curated, blog networks. These represent three different approaches to finding, curating, and monetizing content.  I have long thought that magazines publishers paid insufficient attention to these businesses.

I get the sense that the author thinks the verticals are the best content areas for curation and that micronets for video sharing, such as Web Video 2.0 and especially Blip.TV, offer a huge potential for content creators. The latter hosts and delivers more than 50,000 Web series on its network.  In 2009 the average running time for the's top 25 shows was 4 minutes. A year later viewers were watching videos that averaged 14 minutes.

In a way all of the above is just prelude to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and the like. Social media is a curation mechanism, both accidental and purposeful. Facebook's Open Graph gives rise to presentation software like Flipboard, according to Rosenbaum. We are all accidental curators. And as Bill Gates is supposed to have said, the future of search is verbs, not nouns. People want to find something to do something.

Whether the world is ready for Stocktwits, a trader-focused social network with all the personal data sharing implied. I'm not sure. Given developments of the last decade it does seem plausible that certain demographics would be open to a Facebook of Finance, with all the attendant risks.

I have my quibbles but this is a meaty book and a worthy read for anyone in the content  business.


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