Spurred by the rapid growth of Pinterest–and the herds of marketing experts and advertisers that naturally accompanied it–”social curation” has become a popular buzzphrase inside and outside educational circles. I use the term myself, but it increasingly seems redundant…isn’t curation intrinsically social?
The root of the term “curation” is to cure, to heal. A curate is one who is, according to the OED, one “entrusted with the cure of souls,” a curator one who is more generally a steward or guardian. To curate is a back-formation, a verbing of the noun. All of them involve more than any one individual.
If you aren’t curating for the benefit of others, aren’t you really acting as a collector? The math of curation is collection + connection. No matter how organized, detailed, or specific a collection might be, it isn’t being curated if you alone can see it. I’m a collector by nature (as my overcrowded garage and workshop area attest to). In recent years I’ve focused on paper, pens, and “monkey” related stuff. My system of tracking and organization vary greatly from one to the other, from hyper-organized and tracked to not being intentional at all. But even when I create a subcollection of sorts–a segment of a collection that is intentionally conceived and based on a variety of criterion–I’m not curating. I’m just doing what collectors do. For instance, I have a collection of vintage watermarked onion-skin paper. I’ve gathered this collection into a single sampler binder and labeled each with as much information about that particular paper as I can. I’ve taken care for and of the collection, but haven’t involved others.
Curation demands the social aspect. In a practical sense it might seem a meaningless distinction: if I am suddenly curating with my paper collection by doing the same thing but making it available for others to see, then who cares what we call it? But there are deeper, important principles at play here, including the power of solitude, self-sufficiency, and sharing. Collecting is an important activity. Understanding how to collect and enjoy being a collector without relying on the recognition of others is a fundamental part of being a learner. But sharing is also a fundamental part of being a (happy) human being. Learning to collect and connect, aka curate, aka share, is likewise a fundamental part of being human.
Collecting and curating are a dyad that require each other. Logically, curation can’t happen without collection. But it’s more than a matter of pragmatic definitions and practical activities. The social aspect of curation can be taken too far. Sharing can become self-promotion, with the overwhelmingly dominant principle being not quality and coherence but “reach” and popularity. Thus the herds of advertisers and marketing gurus mentioned above. Thus the millions of Pinterest boards clamoring for our time despite so many being nothing but spontaneous assemblages and variations of saying “me too, me too.” Thus the more or less random assemblages of Facebook shares in search of likes.
While curation is necessarily social, it isn’t necessarily collaborative, which is where modern technology can play an exciting role beyond just amplifying one’s voice. “Wisdom of the crowds” is overstating the case a bit, but the power of the group is undeniable. Curating together, taking into account the expertise of others to shape and improve those curated collections, is a process that magnifies the value of the product and the process alike. Curation involves limits and boundaries…collaboratively defining those boundaries and then revising them to accommodate new contributions demands cooperation and critical thinking.
Good curation further involves a narrative. It needs a story, implicit or explicit. A curated collection of a particular kind of paper is interesting and becomes more so if more people contribute and help refine it. But the best curated collection will tell a story. Perhaps a story of the rise and fall of handwriting, a part of the history of the postal system, the mechanics of the typewriter, the families and fortunes of the companies…there are myriad possibilities.
This what I am interested in people learning to do: collaborate, consider their intentions and intended audience, put the mini-crowd of their minds to work together, create a narrative, share, and learn how to handle the reactions to what they’ve shared: good, bad or indifferent.