Content curation: A required skill for digital-era communicators2010-10-06
Over the years, I have chatted with people who work for museums. There’s Michael Edson, for example, whom I’ve interviewed twice for my podcast based on his work with the Smithsonian Institution. I’ve also met several museum communicators.
These interactions have given me some introductory insight into the job of a curator. There is more to it than simply collecting pieces and displaying them. In small museums (or other organizations with collections), according to Wikipedia, documentation of items in the collection is part of the job, as is conducting research on the items. In larger organizations, curators are also subject-matter experts on the collections for which they are responsible.
Why curate content?
This understanding of a curator’s role isn’t in synch with the description I hear when people talk about content curation as a required skill for digital-era communicators. There’s not much disagreement that communicators need curation skills, but dig deeper and it seems that this is limited to collecting links.
Collecting links doesn’t require much skill. If that’s all there is to it, why bother even listing is as a new requirement?
The need for curation in communications arises from the staggering amount of information available on any given topic. Providing links to related material can aid a reporter or blogger in research, provide context to a complex subject, lend credence to an argument, and/or provide resources necessary to expand one’s knowledge.
There are plenty of good examples of the useful collection and display of links. It’s not uncommon to see these now at the end of a blog post, preceded by the subhead, “You might also like…” These items link to earlier blog posts on similar topics. Even the links contained within a blog post are the result of the blogger considering useful sites where their readers might find some value.
Link collections are an element I include in most of the social media news releases I produce. I tend to put these in dedicated Delicious accounts. One contains links to research materials readers of the release might find useful, while the other is for links to stories generated by the news release.
While there are elements of curation in these efforts, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them were curated. There’s just more to it than that.
The elements of content curation
To really understand the role of content curator, you need to go back to the job description of a museum collection curator:
- Research—You have to know enough about the topic you’re researching to know what is relevant and important to include in your collection. You need to evaluate each item and exercise judgment in deciding which links add value and why. As a curator, you should be monitoring topics by subscribing to feeds, following people who talk about the topic and share links to interesting material, signing up for related Google Alerts, and using all the other tools available to you to stay on top of the subject.
- Organization—There is sense and order to how a collection is displayed; similar structure is necessary when curating content. It’s a subjective decision, but you need to categorize the material you’re sharing in order to support ease of discovery or to support the points you are trying to make. There are several ways to think about organization. One is by the kind of content, such as web pages, podcasts, videos, etc. The other is by taxonomy, the way you classify information into groups based on the nature of the information (such as research reports and studies, commentary, case studies, etc.).
- Distribution—The Net provides myriad ways to share content. As a curator, you need to decide which one (or combination) best suits the audience you’re trying to reach. Among the options: a dedicated web page or microsite, a simple list, topic hubs (like the New York Times’ topics pages), a Delicious (or other boomarking) list, a dedicated site (such as Posterous, which you can use to provide links to new items as you find them), an email newsletter, an RSS feed, an API (which can be the basis of a mobile app), the list goes on.
- Maintenance—A collection is not static; neither is relevant online content. Curation requires that you constantly watch for new resources to add to the collection, as well as review the existing collection to make sure it hasn’t changed, become outdated, or vanished form the Web completely.
- Analytics—Fine-tuning a collection for an audience is no different than tweaking a web page. Which links are visited the most? Where do people seem to be getting the greatest value? Paying attention to the analytics your collection generates can help you make adjustments to increase its usefulness.
- User contributions—Here’s where online content curation differs dramatically from museum collection curation. You can’t go to the Freda Kahlo exhibition, spend some time gazing at “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” then scrawl your own comments under the curator’s remarks. Online, you can. Allowing users to comment on and rate your links can help other visitors determine the most useful resources and help you determine the interests of your audience. Allowing visitors to submit their own recommendations for additions to the collection is also a good idea.
The importance of documentation
There’s at least one other element of curation, a big one: Documentation. There’s a lot of crap on the Web. As a curator, it’s your job to establish the credibility of any content you add to your collection and to note its credentials. Even more, you need to add your own commentary to the link in order to explain its place in the collection and to provide necessary background. Imagine walking into the Impressionist section of an art museum and seeing all the paintings hanging on the wall with no cards to provide details about each work. Simply hanging some links on a page with no explanations is no different.
Let’s say you link to a podcast that includes a discussion pertinent to your topic. To support that link, you need to let your reader know…
- A bit about the podcast—Is it biased or does it strive for objectivity? How long has it been around? How expert are the hosts or the guest?
- What is the focus of the segment dealing with your topic?
- Why would readers of your material find it interesting?
- At what point in the podcast does the segment begin?
- When was it recorded?
It’s not hard to conceive of a day when PR agencies will employ full-time curators to support counselors’ online efforts. Whether it’s for a product campaign or support for an initiative, helping people find supporting documentation that increases understanding, builds affinity, and aids in reporting can only bolster the communciations effort.
There is a growing base of software designed to help curators, like Curata, Curation Station, DataSift and MyProps.org (among many others). From what I’ve seen, these can help you find, organize, and share content. Like any good tool, they appear to do a great job of simplifying some of the work of a curator. Leaving the entire curation job to software, though, misses the point. Curation is a subjective, hands-on task that requires skill and expertise.
That’s why curation is making just about everybody’s list of 21st-century communication skills. Eventually, university PR classes and textbooks will include a chapter on curation. There will be webinars and conference presentations, maybe even entire conferences dedicated to content curation. The point is, you don’t just curate content. You have to learn how, or resign yourself to being nothing more than a collector of links.