Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking

Source: NY Public Library Digital Gallery.

“Curation” and “curator” are the new buzzwords the dying dinosaurs of oldthink print publishing are clinging to just like overboarded Titanic passengers clung to skimpy lifebuoys in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.


It’s their last gasp at trying to remain alive — and relevant.

I got news for you kids: Ain’t gonna happen. No how no way.

“Curation” is just another term for what was buzzing in the early days of the Internet: Portal.

“Oh, look,” the Suits schemed, “If we aggregate all this material in one place, millions will have to come to us — and only us!!11one1 — for it. Nyahahaha.”

And where is Time Inc.’s Pathfinder today? Where is Netscape’s portal? Where is ABC’s much-promoted (on nationwide TV no less!) GO Network?

Gone, gone, gone.

Time Warner to shutter Pathfinder

The decision to take it down was “based on the fact that 98 percent of the traffic doesn’t go to Pathfinder’s home page, but to the individual sites,” said a spokesman for Time Incorporated New Media.

Said Coomes, “There was more power in the individual brands than the Pathfinder brand. Why bury them under the Pathfinder name? Basically that’s what the market told us.”

Boldface emphasis added by me.

Portals are dead.

And so is that idea of “curation.”

This is the Internet. If you haven’t learned the lesson of decentralization and distribution, what have you learned?


Here are the oldthink print publishers on one side, bewailing the falling dominoes of print newspaper book review sections.

Wow, let me see. How many of those book review sections made bestsellers out of Tom Clancy? James Patterson? J.K. Rowling? How many people who read popular books wake up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I wonder what light entertainment The New York Times will recommend I read this day?”

Answer: None.

Popular bestsellers are scorned by the very people who tout the idea of “curation.” Genre fiction is especially scorned. Hey, all you readers of Harlequin and other Romances, how many of those books were “curated” to you by your local newspaper’s book review section?

I see no hands waving in the air for my attention.

Upwards of ninety-percent of the books I have read in my pre-Internet life were based on this:

1) Stumbling upon the book in a store
2) Stumbling upon the book in a public library
3) A passing mention in a non-fiction article
4) Having another writer mention the book

Where is the “curation” in any of that? Half were chance encounters, half were also chance encounters with mentions by others. There was no Curator tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention.

And in this Internet Age? It’s come down to number 4 — writers recommending other writers — and a new one, number 5: readers mentioning books.

There are very few websites I hit to “find out what to read.” Because I don’t like book reviews. They’re irrelevant. Why do I need to have somewhere else tell me what they thought of a book when I can simply go to a publisher’s or writer’s own website and read a sample chapter and judge for myself?

Even people who try to act as their own “curators” — via RSS feeds into Google Reader and the like — fail at that effort! I can’t count the number of tweets and blog posts I’ve read in which people have inevitably reached the point of throwing up their hands and declaring a bankruptcy of self-curation, dumping all unread items and beginning again.

Get used to the world as it is: overwhelming and without any center.

Serendipity — chance encounters — are the norm, especially on the Internet, where there are no equivalents to the bookshelves of stores and public libraries.

Books are recommended to readers by other readers and by writers those readers are reading.

Anyone who tries to sell you a scheme for “breaking through the noise” is a con artist.

The secret is hard, hard work. And luck — chance.

And anyone who utters the words “curator” or “curation” is irrelevant, period.

Source: NY Public Library Digital Gallery.

Please leave the Internet.


27 Responses to Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by mikecane: NEW POST: Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking @jafurtado @revolucion0 @glecharles @jane_l @MoriahJovan…

  2. Your very narrow definition of curator combined with some carefully chosen examples to support your predetermined conclusion don’t add up to a very compelling argument here.

    Two good examples of successful curation: and Talking Points Memo

    A couple of successful individual curators you’ve positively referenced recently: Oprah and Steven Spielberg

    Sometimes it seems you’re so blinded by your disdain for the traditional publishing business model — one few would argue isn’t in dire need of transformation — that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

    • mikecane says:

      You can argue with reality all you want, Guy. You’ll lose, though.

    • Agreed in several ways, Guy. Fragmentation eventually undercuts financial bottom lines, and, tip jars, etc., will only go so far without the economy of scale in place. (Of course, that assumes “curators” go “all in” on paywalls, and on fair use/copyright violations.)

      And, I didn’t know the owner of this blog owned the Internet! I just love opinionators who say “old media” is dead.

      So, if “new media” mavens are right, for those of them in academia, can we just put their old lectures on streaming video, then not pay them to actually teach? No “paywalls” for the live Jay Rosen in the classroom!

    • yearzerowriters says:

      Hi Guy. I also gave Oprah the thumbs up in my pro-curation post. Mike & I mean v different things by curator though. I always think Serota and Jopling because of when & where I grew up

  3. Horatio Vulgar says:

    Hard to disagree with your main points, but I actually do find book reviews to still be a useful way of discovering new books that I might want to read. I have no interest in Clancy, Patterson, Rowling, The Harlequin authors et al. I’ll take my information onbooks from all five of the sources you note, plus book reviews. I also read the New York Review of Books for information on new books as well as the long essays.

  4. Rossitza says:

    Great article! Congratulations! Even when it comes to amazon ranking, I prefer to go and “look inside” when taking a decision to buy a book. The reason – 80% of the world reading population on amazon doesn’t have the same reading taste as me. I guess this applies to everybody.

  5. laura says:

    I completely agree with you.

    If you add one more vector for discovering books–6) other books written by an author I discovered through vectors 1-5–then I would say that 100% of books I read are based on those 6 reasons alone.

    Of course curation remains important for other reasons, namely preservation and archiving, but that noble enterprise is related to all the current hype in name only.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    Mmm, I think in the future, as the network breaks down into chaos, the true curation will be done by readers who run into authors who have personality, who got out there and socialized. The slow-building fan base.

    • yearzerowriters says:

      Moriah, I think you’re spot on. Reader-run networks will be unearthers of new and interesting material (I use the metaphor of planetary accretion for how such networks form).

  7. jenn topper says:

    I was enthralled with the word “curator” when I first heard it in reference to the book world, very recently. The curator. Of course I hadn’t used it in any context other than to signify people hanging paintings in museums…not the greatest image to adopt when considering the publishing industry, technology and contemporary art and writing: just where I am now.

    So when I read Dan Holloway’s post here yesterday–much of which, admittedly, is over my head–I touted it as retweet must-read. Advocating the position? Not necessarily, since I just can’t seem to bend my brain around one term that should signify so much about such a broad terrain.

    The you, Mike, kicked my ass in a battle of . You won the battle.

    The war, though, is about more than semantics. A few weeks ago the curator term came up in a different article I can’t remember now, but I argued that we agreed but were tussling over semantics.

    Now, with your post and Dan’s out there, clearly there are heavier issues than curating, shepharding, leading.

    I refuse to believe you, Dan, Guy, Roland, and I are on such disparate sides of the field on this one, but I can’t speak for the others.

    I fear that a totally decentralized environment–one that cloisters users/readers/spectators behind their own computer screens–impedes the sense of community that fosters healthy debate. As I write this though I realize that there are two sides here–the writer/artist, and the reader/spectator.

    As a reader, I want to choose what I like and not have it forced down my throat. As a writer, I want to do it all myself. But in both cases, compromise is imperative because as a reader it forces me to hear what someone I may disagree with has to say about content I wouldn’t ordinarily seek. Good. As a writer, I must consider the audience and not write for myself or else it’s self-indulgence, not intelligent writing. Good also.

    So where is the curator in both of these cases?


  8. yearzerowriters says:

    Hey, great to find this – I posted yesterday on why we need curators ( – greta to have a debate.

    I meant something slightly different I think, though – the role I see is for the giant charismatic curators like Jay joplin and Nick Serota who sold art to the world as a cool thing ni the 90s, whilst giving new, exciting, edgy artists (and YBA really wAS those things when it started) a genuine space. that’s what we don’t have with literature – literature isn’t water-cooler conversation material (even if books sometimes are).

    OK, that said, I like pretty much all your points – especially the hard work, hard work, luck at the end. And yes, I agree that once you’ve created a great work, and put it out there on the web, and listed it in the right social bookmarknig sites and what have you – whether or not the right person comes across it who’s going to tell their friend who’s going to… is pretty much luck (and it’s so great to see someone admitting the role of luck and slagging off the loatheful self-help snakeoilery of The Secret).

    My point about curators is that they can get a larger proportion of the population interested in literature as a whole – and the more people who are looking on the web, the greater the chance you have of being found.

    • mikecane says:

      >>>and it’s so great to see someone admitting the role of luck and slagging off the loatheful self-help snakeoilery of The Secret

      OMG. Someone who clicked through the links? Or at least hovered over them to see what they pointed to? That is SO rare!

  9. yearzerowriters says:

    Jenn, we’re not on different ides at all which is why we bicker so. If we were at opopsite ends of the spectrum we wouldn’t bother engaging.

    And to make it clear again – I don’t mean by curators what a lot of people who use the term now do. I mean people who excite readers about undiscovered excellence and give authors a space to develop without financial or artistic pressure.

    We all want the same thing here – for readers to have the very best books available, and as writers to figure out how to get our books to readers. And we all think the old way of doing things is an irrelevance. what we’re figuring out is which ways WILL work. And a large part of my article yesterday was about the impotrance of experimenting and failing and not feeling bad about having failed – we need to try things and be flexible. And the more minds we have working on the questions the better – which is why bickering is so good. Because if we agreed about everything, we’d end up reinforcing our opinions and getting nowhere.

  10. […] [from yeltsinfina] Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking […]

  11. Liz says:

    Agree, mostly. Let randomness reign supreme and don’t try to commoditize or package curation. But if a person recommends you a book or music or whatever, they are curating, however whimsically. This person might also be a critic or blogger or both (I am). So strangers, not just friends, appreciate my opinion. Great. It’s just one opinion. We’re richer for knowing others’ opinions. I love seeing a film, listening to an album, or reading a book, and then reading others’ reviews. It’s stimulating. But perhaps it’s only stimulating because I AM a critic, and a young one at that.

    Curation is a problem when it tries to be definitive. No one can accomplish such a thing and no one should want to.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on a recent article of mine on this very topic: 

  12. […] Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking Source: NY Public Library Digital Gallery. “Curation” and “curator” are the new buzzwords the […] […]

  13. Ed Summers says:

    Thought provoking piece. I think you under-estimate the need for “portal” services (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc) which allow people to find their way into the distributed network of information you so aptly illustrated in What is google but a curated map of of the giant global graph we call the Web? I agree with your sentiment that the nature of publishing and curation as we knew it in the print-age is radically altered. But the notion that there is no marketplace for curated views on our new information landscape is a overstating things a bit. Maybe all I’m saying is that “curation” perhaps a broader meaning than the one you are ascribing to it :-)

    • mikecane says:

      >>>What is google but a curated map of of the giant global graph we call the Web?

      No, it’s not at all curated. It is algorithmic, done by machine. The usefulness of Google has declined over the years despite their assertions of algorithmic improvements. Most results I get nowadays are splogs (spam blogs) and disguised SEO-goosed advertising. And now they’ve added Twitter, which many people are complaining about because how useful are tweets? We can use Search Twitter specifically for that. It just clutters Google even more.

  14. Ed Summers says:

    I guess what I’m saying is your notion of what “curated” means is outdated. If you are content to wander the web following links around that’s fine. But I’m dependent on “curated” overlays over the web (google, twitter, delicious) to find my way around.

  15. […] is an important part of how information is disseminated online, but in a networked environment curation doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the algorithms of search engines, and to the six degrees of separation in our social […]

  16. […] about curating content in the future. Business Insider say ‘Curation is King,’ while others are saying curation is a dead idea and serendipity rules the day. Are we a curation […]

  17. […] Now. There are some folks who believe that content creation "may not result in measurably better content than content curation.” Still others believe the idea of “curation” is a huge copout that allows us to continue to ignore the content mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Or, as Mike Kane says in his post, Curation: A Dead Idea of Dead Thinking: […]

  18. […] Curation: A Dead Idea Of Dead Thinking – […]

  19. […] definition of curator is not at all like the anti-progress archivist Mike Cane prefers, but closer to that of a community organizer, a la Richard Nash’s vision of […]

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