Why a good curator is more than a filter

Curation and the Future of News

Changing economics and new technologies are reshaping the future of online news. Industry observers call out changes in:

  • reporting such as hyperlocal news and citizen journalism;
  • content such as the mixing of multimedia content with traditional text material; and
  • distribution such as news aggregation and the ongoing diverse choices in business models, revenue streams, and mobile devices.

In addition there is growing interest by information consumers in taking more control of their media time. They want personalized newsfor their specialized interests. The problem? News on specialized topics is often hard to find and is scattered across many sources. Mainstream publishing organizations do not cover topics deep on the long tail because they lack both the editorial resources and the expertise.

Can social media provide the means for curating the long tail?

Online Curating v. Publishing

In traditional news publishing, the role of curating is typically combined with publishing. For example, people seek out the Wall Street Journal for authoritative coverage of business news, or Technology Review for timely reporting on emerging technology.

There is a great need for curators of online information to help us find interesting and quality content, but the requirements and roles differ from traditional publishing.

Deeply specialized topics. The long tail of specialized information that people read vastly exceeds the editorial expertise and capacity of traditional publishing organizations. For example, a city newspaper is unlikely to have a regular column on “polymer structures” or “muscle cars”.

Density and aggregation. Reporting of long tail topics is sparse in major publications. For example, articles on  “faith-based neighborhood partnerships” appear in many publications, but are not comprehensively or frequently covered in any one publication. Curators would need to aggregate information about such topics as abortion, gay rights, and women in the ministry from many sources.

Orientation. Information consumers on the web range from people seeking an introduction (“newbies”) to dedicated followers. A good curator presents the information within a structure that guides users in understanding what they need to know and what matters. For example, a newbie to the future of journalism could use a guide to the major topics, such as citizen journalism and mobile platforms.

Why People Curate

Curating requires:

  • Expertise. Good curators need mastery of a subject area in order to identify authoritative sources of information and to establish a meaningful and useful organization of the material. They also need expertise to modify the selection of material and to reorganize it incrementally as the subject evolves. For example, recently the news on health care reform has evolved to cover the dynamics of the town hall meetings.
  • Effort. Curating also requires dedicated effort to collect material and to arrange it into a useful organization. Dynamic areas need ongoing maintenance. For example, candidate gaffes and controversies tend to arise as topics during the course of election campaigns.

Curators tend to be passionate about their subject areas. For example, in a health area they may be dedicated mainstream or alternative medicine specialists. In technology areas they may be graduate students organizing materials for reading groups on the latest developments in their fields.

Curators can have several motivations:

  • Intrinsic interest. They may be sufficiently interested to curate for their own purposes. For example, curating may help them keep up in a field or they may organize material as a step in understanding a new subject area. For example, when a family member develops a medical condition such as Crohn’s disease they may want to quickly learn about causes, treatments, and the best doctors.
  • Shared interest. They may have a shared interest with friends or colleagues. Curating creates social capital. For example, some friends could start an investment group and share information on investment strategies.
  • Commercial interest. They may also have a commercial stake in a subject area and benefit from curating. For example, a chiropractor could curate articles on relevant conditions and treatments, and offer them to clients on a web site.

Curating a Social Index

Many online journalists and bloggers already serve as curators by collecting links and adding commentary.However, I believe that a new form of curation is needed that helps curators work more efficiently. These ideas are informed by the experiences of early users of Kiffets, a social indexing system that we are developing at PARC. Kiffets recently started its beta release.  At the time of this post, it has about 200 users and over 350 curated indexes on 6000+ topics.

Social media draw on three sources of power:

  • Light work of the many. Properly harnessed, the light or casual “work” of many users can yield the “wisdom of the crowd”. This refers to the casual “work” of the many users of a social media system. The work may be incidental to using the system — such as determining popularity of articles and indexes by measuring how people use them. There may also be direct but lightweight actions, such as users commenting or voting on articles.
  • Hard work of the few. Typically, the “few” contribute expertise that benefits others. In Wikipedia, this is the work of the people who write and edit articles. In a social index, this is the work of the curators of indexes.
  • Tireless work of the machines. This is the automatic information processing work of computers in support of the users, including web crawling, article collection, and machine learning.

Kiffets shares a similar distribution of user roles as other social media. Most users are just consumers of information who provide simple feedback to the system. A smaller percentage of users creates single-topic indexes, which are the easiest to create. However, a small but growing number of users have graduated to more advanced curator roles, creating multiple-topic indexes and sharing them with friends. Since we expect this style of viral sharing to drive adoption of social indexing, several features reduce the effort needed by curators in creating and sharing indexes. These facilities shift some of the required effort from the “hard work of the few” to the other two sources of power.

Evergreen collection. Articles are collected regularly from designated web sources and automatically classified into the topics for the indexes. In contrast with social news sites such as Reddit, this reduces the burden of curators or other users in finding and submitting articles.

Topic training. Curators define a tree of topics and provide articles as positive (on-topic) and negative (off-topic) examples. Given these examples, machine learning algorithms create computational models that automatically classify articles by topic. In contrast with tagging sites such as Delicious, this reduces the burden of identifying categories for articles and provides consistent categorization.

Inline maintenance. Curators can mark articles as off-topic (on article reading pages) or submit new articles and their sources (using a Kiff It! book marklet) while browsing the web.

While they are reading articles, curators can mark articles as "off topic".

While they are reading articles, curators can mark articles as “off topic”.

A social index aims to support information consumers in their personal news diets, even in highly specialized areas.

Curation is key to this.

A social approach can succeed because even our special interests are not entirely unique. By providing the means to leverage the work and activities of “birds of a feather,” we may make it easier for all of us to stay informed on what matters to us.


 Editor: Sonal Chokshi

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