Why Curation Devalues the Product, Creator, and Viewer

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One of my favorite movies is Tapeheads, a 1988 comedy that’s never even managed to rise to the level of cult classic. Starring John Cusack and Tim Robbins as a couple of security guards who try to break into the world of music videos, the movie is both hilarious and prescient, predicting a pop culture world where a videographer’s mistake -- syncing the audio from a Swedish death metal band to the video of a funeral procession -- resulted in a mashup that transcended the sum of its parts.

But of all the bits from the movie that have stuck with me and the three other people who’ve seen it, the one that stands out came from music mogul Mo Fuzz (played by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius), who keeps getting Cusack and Robbins to produce videos for him, as he says in his velvety bass, “on spec.” With the promise of stardom and, ostensibly, an actual paycheck dangling mere inches from their noses, the hapless videographers crank out video after video. Needless to say, the big payday never arrives.

Magazine and website editors, like video publishers and record company impresarios, are constantly looking for ways to generate more content without spending more money. And, as aggregators such as Huffington Post and YouTube have proven, there is -- now more than ever -- a steady stream of creators willing to give away their work for free, predicated on the (usually faulty) belief that exposure will lead to income further on down the road. In the meantime, they’re devaluing not only their own work but the work of every other writer, videographer, musician, and creator in any other field.

The phenomenon is due to -- or at least has occurred concomitantly with -- the rise of “curation” as a term to refer to those who pick and choose content and share it on their blogs, post it to Facebook, or pin it to Pinterest. A recent article on Mashable even went so far as to proclaim, “If you use the web, you are a ‘curator.’” This misuse of the title “curator” has, justifiably, incensed those museum and library professionals who’ve trained and built up years of experience building collections and who chafe more than a little at the notion that their vocation is akin to someone sitting on their smartphone and sharing links that pique their interest.

Spurred in part by Steven Rosenbaum’s 2011 book Curation Nation, I admit that I was bullish on curation for a while. However, I find the output of more than a few self-proclaimed curators such as Jason Hirschhorn’s daily “Media ReDEFined” email useful for helping me stay on top of news and insights that I might otherwise miss. But let’s not fool ourselves: The trend toward curation devalues everyone involved, from the content creators, whose work is spread far and wide with little compensation, to many of the curators, who inevitably spend more time curating than creating anything original; and to the readers, viewers, and listeners, who ultimately surrender their own critical judgment to someone else.

So what’s the driving force behind the over-valuation of curation? It’s the chase for lowest-common-denominator, quantity-over-quality mass page views and ad impressions, of course. The belief that it doesn’t matter who sees what you create, as long as somebody sees it, is the ultimate devaluation of both content and audience. That may be the price of doing content business today, but I can’t help but believe that eventually the worm will turn and audiences will seek out original, high-quality content directly from the people who are making it.

Maybe that’s already happening. I recently viewed a demo from a content aggregation service and was surprised -- and thrilled -- that the term curation didn’t come up once, and the people pitching me on the service realized that, for a site such as Streaming Media, original content will always be worth more than second-hand news. That doesn’t mean aggregation is worth nothing -- or even that original content sites shouldn’t augment what they do with secondary content. But editors and content creators will do their audience a greater service valuing their creations and their audiences more than a few more views.

This article appears in the August/September 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Overvaluation of Curation."

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