The Digital Curation Problem 

Facebook and Netflix are hiring "curators" but curation has long been an issue on the internet.

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There’s been a rash of dialogue about “curation” over the past week: 

  • Oh yeah, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal “book curator” caused some amusement.

In 2012, I wrote an essay (only exists on HuffPo now but originally for Artinfo) on the idea of “curation” and how the word had become exhausted (even seven years ago) by social media. Here’s my thumbnail history: 

In ancient Rome, “curatores” were government officials with administrative roles, overseeing public buildings, purchasing food for the state, and staging public games. By the 14th century, “curate” as a noun meant “spiritual guide,” and by the mid-16th century, referred specifically to the paid deputy priest of a parish. In the 20th century, museums were the domain of curators, who took care of the objects in their collections. Frank O’Hara, to name a famous example, was the assistant curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. The first curatorial education program was founded in 1987 at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in France, heralding its arrival as a unique discipline. By the first decade of the new millennium, curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, and Massimiliano Gioni had become celebrities in and of themselves for their exhibition making and related activities.

Curators were a fixture of the art world long before “curation” was such a meme on the internet, before it became a word for assembling aspirational digital moodboards rather than organizing scholarly exhibitions. But it’s easy to see why that role is so important online. 

The curator’s job, in the modern definition, is to guide their audience through an experience by selecting among artifacts. Curators have the responsibility of the expert academic as well as the task of the teacher: to communicate clearly and succinctly, sharing what matters about the material at hand and presenting an interpretation for broad consumption. They eliminate the fake and emphasize the most relevant.

The internet, in contrast to a heavily curated museum, is full of total crap that lacks any kind of filter for quality or significance. For the most part, we are forced to be our own curators or an algorithm does the curation for us, as on the Twitter or Facebook feed or the top Google search results. At the massive scale of digital news and social media, Full Human Curation is more or less impossible; tech companies either make us responsible for ourselves or automate the process.

But we’re exhausted by the responsibility of curation. We don’t want to judge everything we come across online; we want to just consume it and know that it’s high quality, which is what curators offer. After the looming tech backlash, companies also want to avoid the mistakes that their curation algorithms incite daily, like people getting radicalized by their automated YouTube feeds or fed misinformation about, say, the Rohingya genocide on Facebook

Human curators offer a quality filter: the worst content, at least, won’t make it through the barricade because any human will apply a base level of acceptability (one hopes) to what gets promoted online.

Curation is also a value-add, as Netflix realizes, because it’s an expression of human taste and discernment. The company spends billions of dollars a year on creating and licensing content made by human auteurs, then leaves that content to be surfaced on its limited homepage by an automated process. It’s as if art museums just gathered objects in a basement and then left them to be uncrated only when some formula decided it was the right thing to do, one at a time. 

Why not invest what must be a negligible amount of money in comparison to the content budget to hire a team of curators who organize and contextualize Netflix’s offerings, making the shows more valuable and more interesting to the consumer, to better connect to subscribers who might be tempted to leave? Smaller streaming services like Criterion already boast curation as part of their service — they’ll help you decide which films to watch and educate you about the work of the actors or directors they highlight. 

Curation is meta-content: it enhances what’s already there. Given its roots in art and culture, the word itself also lends a veneer of authority to the feeds. We’re not just blindly consuming; we feel we’re being led by someone with some expertise (whether or not this is actually the case).

Yet curation is still discussed as a luxury or a bonus, even though it’s vital. The Guardian editor argued that it wasn’t necessary to name the curators of exhibitions in reviews — essentially, that it was okay to not credit curators for their work. There’s an ongoing debate over whether curation counts as authorship, whether it has value on its own. That’s also why the article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “book curator” got made fun of: as much as we want curators to guide us, we also can’t take them very seriously. If we “curate” our own Instagram feeds, how hard could it possibly be? Thus a “book curator” sounds like unfathomable excess. You know who else is a book curator? A librarian.

As overexposed as the word is, I think we need more curation. We need as much intelligent selection by un-automated humans as possible. And we should accept that it’s an important, skilled job.

Hi, I’m writing consistent short essays on how technology influences the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this, please hit the Substack heart button above or below. Subscribe here!