TWEED Book Reviews: Curation Nation by Steven Rosenbaum

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a curator. You search specific keywords on Google and evaluate results to target exactly what you’re looking for. You follow and trust a host of sources for particular veins of information and expertise. While I admit that the subject matter of Curation Nation, namely content aggregation and curation, overtly sparks a conversation most inviting to data experts, I believe that the sooner you accept that you, too, are a curator, the better.

An author, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, Rosenbaum crafted a lens I never thought I’d see the creative world through—one of sheer information. To buy into the ideas presented in the book, you have to accept that we’re drowning in data. You recognize that despite the web’s intangible quality, its capacity is finite. Rosenbaum’s philosophy hinges on the assertion that our social networking extensions, email accounts, and search histories are rendering online content management a disaster sans an aggregating platform. As a young advertising professional who grew up using a computer since grammar school, I found it challenging to break into the crux of Rosenbaum’s argument. When I realized the reason for this, his assertions became all the more insightful. Curation is a word little understood, mainly because we assume that it falls under the responsibility of the ‘experts’ or even inanimate search engines. Why should humans curate when we have computers? The text works against this hesitation toward curation, asserting that one living, breathing human is the most valuable curator there is.

For readers who find it difficult to immerse themselves in this book, try considering that very fact. If that isn’t enough, consider Rosenbaum’s background. Founder of (a sophisticated video aggregation site), documentary filmmaker, and creator of MTVUnfiltered, Rosenbaum has resided on both the creation and the curation fronts, which are more intertwined than we once thought. Throughout his text, Rosenbaum moves from a description of curation, its history, and the key players, to its implications for magazines, web platforms, brands, networks, and even micronets. The text’s intrigue nearly doubles upon reaching Chapter 10, once Rosenbaum has made sure that we understand the process of curation and he (finally!) plunges into provocative case studies. As the entertainment marketing leg of a large agency, OgilvyEntertainment is inexorably and insatiably concerned with, well, entertainment. What is entertainment? “Self expression is the new entertainment” (50), President of Huffington Post Arianna Huffington explains to Rosenbaum. Recognizing this “impulse” is to understand the workings of content on the web. It’s the human truth behind data overload.  Information that lives digitally doesn’t emerge out of thin air; somebody, somewhere creates it. Networks, brands, and companies that embrace this are succeeding in a world where consumers are creators.

And here’s where Rosenbaum’s most interesting discussion erupts: curation and television. Flashing back to the 1990s, Rosenbaum remembers, “What did still exist back in those dark ages was storytelling” (171). As an increasing amount of consumers are empowered to create and showcase content, content ecosystems become not only powerful but also necessary. If you’re interested in consumer-powered storytelling like I am, be sure to read Rosenbaum’s recount of MTVUnfiltered, a consumer-created content initiative relying on viewers’ suggestions for news stories. After crafting the initial idea, Rosenbaum and the team at MTV ran a :30 promotion for the show three times, resulting in 5,000 call-ins from viewers and MTV’s decision to greenlight the series for production. Each episode relied on viewer call-ins. The suggested stories reached associate producers who adopted the most compelling ones. If a viewer’s story was chosen, she would borrow a camera from MTV and gather footage. All communications occurred via phone or fax, proving that fascination with user-generated stories existed prior to and independent of the technological capabilities of the web. MTVUnfiltered was the first show on MTV to be edited on nonlinear equipment, mirroring early on what the Internet would manifest more strongly. What’s more striking than the show’s technological innovations, according to Rosenbaum, are its philosophical ones. Consumers became creators, contributing to the current era of person-to-person storytelling.

“The future of search is verbs” (220). Bill Gates uttered this to former Forbes journalist and leading digital entrepreneur Esther Dyson at a private dinner.  It’s a meaningful anecdote for Rosenbaum to include and it succinctly captures the psychological impulses behind consumers’ online search habits. When we search, we have reasons more ambitious than merely finding information. Whether we’re searching to help us with social planning, to find information for an assignment for work or school, etc. there is always an action item at the end of our search.

Rosenbaum’s own views on search engines align with this very principle. In the section What Is Broken, we learn that “Search is broken. It’s over. Done. Gone” (252). Perhaps this is a drastic note to end on, though the hyperbole effectively forces me to continue reading and ask, But why? Because search engines were an “elegant solution” to the content flood, but have evolved into platforms that are at the will of their own content, unable to aggregate the breadth of their contents. It’s ironic. I remember reading an article on Fast Company last year that asserted that Google was responsible for our shifting approach to searching information, as it encourages us to be purposeful and strategic. Now, it seems as if content is drowning in its own living space.

To simplify the text, Rosenbaum’s answer to all this is curation. Recognizing his steadfast support of curation early on can make this unchanging answer to the text’s questions rather predictable—but, as Rosenbaum urges us in his conclusion, “the conclusions, as interesting as they are, are only half the point” (245). To me, these conclusions were a quarter of the point. The rest lies in the various conversations Rosenbaum had to complete this work, and the strategic curation he himself undertook to produce it.

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