Collecting Content Isn’t An Art – Creating It Is

Woe to the content curator!

This is how askew the conversation on content aggregation and curation has gotten.

Content curators (people and companies that scan the web for interesting articles, photographs and videos that are created by other people and post them on their own sites) are upset that they are not getting enough credit for “discovering” unique content.  As a result, there is a movement afoot to provide formal credit to curators who find the content that others repost.

One of the web’s most popular curators, Maria Popova of Brainpickings, has created a Curator’s Code that says in part:

“While we have systems in place for literary citation, image attribution, and scientific reference, we don’t yet have a system that codifies the attribution of discovery in curation as a currency of the information economy, a system that treats discovery as the creative labor that it is.”

Discovering other people’s content might be a skill (and can take a lot of work), but it isn’t a creative labor.  And I certainly disagree that there should be a code for crediting curators when the we still haven’t figure out fair ways to credit and reward creators of the actual content.

The web is filled with content thievery, plagiarism, piracy, and unfair uses.

Let’s not complicate things by switching focus off the plight of content creators – when many curators are guilty of the crimes I just listed.  We’re living in an age when people who create online and digital content are having it plucked and plundered and now the plunderers want credit for discovering it (as if it was somehow “lost” before).

For content creators this is like watching the thief who stole their wallet get upset when the wallet ends up in the hands of another pickpocket.

To be fair, Popova seems to do curation right by trying to push her readers to the original source material.  She doesn’t sell advertising on her site, although she does ask for voluntary contributions from her readers.

However, many content curators don’t have the integrity of Popova and profit mightily from other people’s content.  This comes in many forms.  Some people and companies rewrite content so that readers don’t need to click a link to the source material – because all of the content is there.  Companies like Huffington Post have been accused of doing this.  Then there are people and companies that repackage the content in other formats and profit from the new display.  Companies like Flipboard and Tumblr are in this category.

Now there is no doubt that curation can add value – and even make people see content in new and exciting ways.  But curating content should be done with permission of the creator – and if you are making money from curation then the creators you are aggregating should enjoy some of that revenue or benefit in some tangible way.

However, aggregators sharing revenues with content creators is a rare practice.  David Carr, media critic from the New York Times, explored this issue in a column this week.  He said in part:

“Traditional media organizations watched as others kidnapped their work, not only taking away content but, more and more, taking the audiences with them. Practitioners of the new order heard the complaints and suggested that mainstream media needed to quit whining and start competing in a changed world, where what’s yours may not be yours anymore if others find a better way to package it.  So where is the line between promoting the good work of others and simply lifting it?”

Carr’s question is the crux of the issue.  It’s difficult to answer because of the complications of the web.  But I would argue that any curator who has built a business model centered on aggregating other people’s content is likely guilty of lifting it.

But there are differences in aggregation.  I see four distinct practices (there may be more): linking, citing, aggregating and curating.

Here’s how I’d define them:

  • Linking: providing a link to another piece of content with the purpose of driving traffic to the original source material.  An example is when someone tweets out the link to an article or posting a link to their Facebook page.  The intention here is that the user found the source material compelling, entertaining or informative and wanted to share it with others. 
  • Citing: using information and/or content from another with the purpose of adding to or responding to the source material.  An example is this blog post.  I’m citing information from Maria Popova and David Carr as part of an analysis on the aggregation topic while at the same time providing links to the source material so my readers can experience it first hand.  This is much like using a footnote.
  • Aggregating: the practice of gathering links from other sources on specific topics in order to provide readers with an easy one-stop shop for information. This aggregation process can be sourced by people or by software.  Google News is an example of the later as it provides a page with headlines from other news outlets culled by an algorithm.
  • Curating: the practice of self-selecting content that people admire and displaying or presenting it in new ways.  This is what Popova does on Brainpickings and the concept behind companies such as Flipboard and Pinterest.

There are people and companies in each category who do it right and who do it wrong.  But the issue of curation and aggregation fairness should be focused on the creators – not the curators.

What do you think?


Is Content Creation the Elegant Art of Theft?

David Carr’s column: “A Code of Conduct for Content Aggregators”

Maria Popova’s “Curator’s Code”


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