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A Brief History of Curation

A Brief History of Curation

Curation provides a solution to the problems engendered by big data — by surfacing quality over quantity

Broadly speaking, curation can be defined as “The act of organizing and maintaining a collection (such as artworks, artifacts, or data)”. As a society, we have a long history of curating content. The first examples of curated content emerged in Renaissance Europe, five centuries ago, in the form of newsletters. Handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from economic conditions to social customs. The newsletter editor himself decided what information was the most important and most relevant, organizing and distributing that knowledge for public consumption.

Newsletters eventually matured into full-fledged newspapers. By the 1850s, publications such as the New York Times became the go-to source of news for information consumers. The editor served as an expert curator for consumers, determining what content was most factual, relevant and interesting for the masses. The newspaper editor wore the hat of content governor for consumer information.

In 1996 the Internet took off and the New York Times went from a single printed edition to delivering two editions – one online and one offline publication. This change required organizational changes to adapt the New York Times to a world disrupted by new communications technology. The paper expanded their curation team from one editor to multiple editors and evaluated whether to merge or differentiate the online and offline publications. Eventually the popularity of online content pushed the New York Times to expand their notion curation. No longer were expertly curated articles enough. There was a place for non-expert curation in the form of crowd-sourced content. The online edition of the New York Times introduced specific areas of the publication where aggregated content was curated according to popularity signal. Readers could easily find the “Most Emailed” and “Most Viewed” articles in sections of the paper devoted to communicating what content their readership was engaging with deeply.

Social media and crowd-sourced creation

Around the same time, social networks like Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook introduced self- service techniques for content curation. On those platforms, individuals found published articles of interest or created their own content and shared it with their personal network of consumers. Features such as the “like” button allowed for social feedback on the appropriateness and value of the content shared.

In the modern world of crowd-sourced and socially curated content, there is always a risk that consumers accept anything online as fact. This presents a difficult challenge: How does one know what information online is accurate and what is not?

This leaves space for both expert curators to continue to play an important role in communications technology and for new features to be introduced that ensure information validity and maintain accuracy. One example is the use of annotations on a Wikipedia page with unknown sources. Annotations indicate the information on the page may not be accurate or needs updating but still allow for that content to be distributed.

From newspapers to social networks (such as Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook), the introduction of new technologies has both introduced new methods of curation and expanded the breadth of individuals deemed fit to be curators.

In part two of this article, we’ll take a look at how there is now a growing demand to curate data and how the lessons learned from past curation can be applied to organizations struggling to deal with a huge influx of data.