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Curation vs. Consumption
A moodboard of the self.
Welcome to my personal newsletter. I’m publishing weekly essays on digital technology and culture, in the run-up to my January 2024 book FILTERWORLD: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. Subscribe or read the archive here.
When I quit social media for a few months last year, I lost an impulse that had already been feeling kind of bizarre. Hanging out on Twitter all day, I would feel the need to tweet every article that I read and found compelling. Good NYT Magazine feature? Share it. Good blog post? Cosign, send that link out into the ether. In part it was a holdover from the early days of Twitter, when finding stuff to read was its primary purpose, before Twitter itself became the primary subject of discussion. But the articles were also a way of showing what I liked in writing and trying to support those writers — every tweet made a difference, or at least felt like it did.
Twitter isn’t a great place to get click-throughs anymore; me posting a link isn’t going to drive much traffic to an article. But that act of curation still feels important, in terms of being a participant in the cultural ecosystem. I want to highlight stuff I think is good, as much for me as anyone else. In a 2012 lecture (11 years ago!) the Internet artist Jonathan Harris summarized the problem: “Curation is replacing creation as a mode of self-expression.” But when everyone is doing so much curating, is it really that effective? Are we too distracted by our own recommendations to follow anyone else’s?
We curate our Instagram pages and stories rather than think about the things they document. We talk about our TikTok For You feeds as if they were representations of our deepest subconscious, like an astrological sign (maybe they are). We post screenshots of what we’re playing on Spotify to turn private listening into a public spectacle. On an affiliate marketing site like New York Magazine’s The Strategist, recommending has become an aspirational cultural act, the article itself symbolizing a successful act of curation. We all want to do Grub Street Diet food diaries, less because we care about food than because the projection of taste the diaries entail nets the writer more clout, as a curator of consumption.
This dilemma came to mind when I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast How Long Gone, an hour of bullshitting hosted by Chris Black and Jason Stewart that comes out multiple times a week. (I personally love it.) The pair talked with Michael Hainey, an old-school magazine editor including at early 2000s GQ and currently an editor at Air Mail, the fancy-schmancy upper-crust email newsletter. Hainey observed that the era of magazines as curators is largely over. “Everyone is an outlet,” Hainey said. “Everyone is a publisher.” Everyone is a curator for a personal audience.
Podcasting “replaced some things,” Chris Black, who I consider a great curator, responded. Instead of GQ, people now get their opinions and their slang and their fashion sense from recordings of tastemakers chatting, a less formal and more intimate version of magazine curation, where teams of staff arduously assembled pages of stories to project a certain image of lifestyle. It’s difficult to create a magazine, but these days it also feels difficult to consume one: “Most people strictly want to do things the easiest way possible,” Black said. Faster to just follow an influencer’s Instagram stories or let the TikTok feed direct your aspirations. Then, when you find something you like, you can put your own stamp of approval on it by sharing it or posting a screenshot.
Yet curation is not really curation if it is solely directed at projecting an image of the self. Then it’s just narcissism. Curators, in the context of 20th-century art museums, are meant to care more about the objects at hand than their own taste. Lately it feels like the opposite: Showing off personal taste is the endpoint. We have too much curation, and not enough of it well-curated. Is it time for a curator of curators? Rather than doubling down, I want to focus on consuming, really diving in to the things I like and appreciating them. I might not even tweet about it.
— Jess wrote a very bleak but also very funny dispatch from CPAC, the Republican party conference, where Trump mania was still very much alive. The far-right candidates who lost their recent elections were all celebrated there as stars. As Jess described it, “Losing is the new winning.”