The Curation Conundrum 

The Media-specific Internet is abuzz with commentary and conversations around a new graphic from research group CB Insights outlining the rise and fall and irrelevance of venture-backed curation services such as Flipboad, Zite and whatnot. Curation is something that is very close to my heart, though I don’t think of it as “curation.” Perhaps that is why it is misunderstood from a philosophical standpoint.

Today, it is virtually impossible to be a media person and exclusively be be a reporter/writer. There is too much going on, in too many places and too often. Sure you can write about things, but for an audience to understand and give your proper credence, it is important to find, collect and share things that reflect your point of view. You can do it anywhere – from blogs to Twitter to Facebook. It doesn’t matter: what we call curating is a way to provide textural context to a media person. And no, I am not exclusive in my label of “media person” to media professionals – it can be a person or even a brand. The act of curation is about reflecting a point of view — sort of like how John Gruber does on his Apple-centric (but not exclusive) DaringFireball. I am able to understand him better by the choices he makes on what to share.

Though curation as a philosophy is a necessity, curation as a business is a bit of a Chimera. The problem with curation is that no one wants to pay for it. CB Insights graphics focused on newsreader services and apps, which led me to point out (on Facebook) that newsreader apps exist to send people elsewhere. Unfortunately, you can’t make money from doing that (unless you have the intent and scale of Google.) So what does an app do? It tries to keep people inside the reader, which again is a very hard problem, unless you are Facebook, Google, Apple or whoever next has billions to burn and keep the eyeballs glued to their platform and eventually turn that into cash.

How do you find millions of people to continue to use your platform, and then pay for it, either as a subscription or with their attention (via advertising.) I think it is a unique challenge and remains unsolved. Machine learning techniques and alogrithms are supposed to have solved this problem, but for some odd reason it remains unsolved.
Curation, however is thriving as an artisanal activity. I mentioned John Gruber, but there is my dear friend Hiten Shah who curates an email chock full of links related to software as a service.

There are others, for instance, who are exceptional curators of financial and economic reading materials ( such as Abnormal Returns), science and new automotive landscape. They all work, because they are done for the love of it. They work because a human editor has read and approved these links and they reflect that editor’s point of view.

After a two year gap, I recently restarted my ‘7 stories to read this weekend’ newsletter. Hiten asked me what was the purpose of the newsletter and why I had restarted it. That prompted a bit of self reflection.

Since stepping away from full time journalism, I have written and read and saved without any real reason or purpose. Writing an occasional article for the New Yorker has been satisfying, but being away from the grind of the business has been liberating. It has allowed me to take a longer view on things, and yet it has eroded the evolutionary adaptation that comes from constantly reading and writing about things. Living in this time of “big change,” I think it is important to take note of the transitions around us — from the old to the new, focusing on the emergent behaviors.

As a life long “note taker” writing and thinking out loud in public spaces has been a way for me to sharpen my opinions and broaden my thinking. Curating a weekly email newsletter is part of that thinking process. And selfish as it my reasons might be, I think it allows one to highlight the “good work” done by hard working writers. We can all use a few more readers and supporters in this era of listicles and click bait headlines.

How I Read Now

There are new attempts at curation that give human curation scale – This, Pocket Recommended and Nuzzel are three examples. Pocket allows anyone to recommend stories and others can follow them. I follow about 30 odd people and find great reading material on a daily basis. This allows me to recommend only one story a day and as a result I wait to share the best, and so do others whom I follow. Nuzzel is a great way to curate your Twitter feed — and unless you keep adding different sources, it can become bland and repetitive.

It is like a garden that needs constant pruning and care, but is really useful. I find those three sources plus more old school curators like Techmeme have replaced a lot of “direct visits” to publications for me over the past few months. Perhaps because of the human recommendations, the quality of signal is pretty high. Along with a handful of my favorite curatorial blogs such as Kottke, DaringFireball, BrainPickings, Redef and Marginal Revolution, I keep on top of things that matter to me.

San Francisco, December 22, 2015

Additional reading: The rise & fall of venture-backed readers

Websites and services mentioned in this post: Hiten.com, DaringFireball, Kottke, MarginalRevolution, Brain Pickings, ReDef, This, Nuzzel, Pocket.

A letter from Om

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