Content Curators as Cultural Intermediaries: “My reputation as a curator is based on what I curate, right?”

Daniel Ashton, Martin Couzins

Abstract


In 2011 The Economist alerted us to the claim that “digital data will flood the planet.” The exponential increase in data such as e-mails, Tweets and Instagram pictures underpins claims that we are living in an age of ‘infoglut’ (Andrejevic) and information superabundance (Internet Live Stats). Several years earlier, Shirky posed this as an issue not of “information overload” but of “filter failure” (Asay). Shirky’s claim suggests that we should not despair in the face of unmanageable volumes of content, but develop ways to make sense of this information – to curate.

Reflecting on his experiences of curating the Meltdown Festival, David Byrne addressed the emergence of everyday curating practices: “Nowadays, everything and everyone can be curated. There are curators of socks, menus and dirt bike trails […] Anyone who has come up with a top-ten list is, in effect, a curator. And anyone who clicks ‘Like’ is a curator.”

Byrne’s comments on socks and top ten lists captures how curating can be personal. In their discussion of curating as a new literacy practice, Potter and Gilje highlight how “as well as the institutional and professional contexts for such work through the centuries and across cultures, many people have made personal collections of texts and artefacts that have stood for them in the world” (123).

The emergence of easily, and often freely, available content curating tools is linked to practices of accessible curating (Good). There has been a proliferation of content curating platforms and tools. Notwithstanding that accessibility and everyday usage are often the hallmark of content curating (for example, see Villi on social curating and user-distributed content), this article specifically focuses on content curating as a service.

Defining the content curator as “someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares the best and most relevant content on a specific issue online”, Bhargava in 2009 described content curating as the next big social media job of the future. Popova stresses the importance of authorship and approaching curating as a “form of creative labor in and of itself” and identifies content curators as “human sense-makers” in a culture of “information overload”. 

By addressing curating ‘content for others’ rather than other curatorship practices such as ‘content for me’ and ‘content about me’, we aim to offer insights into the professional and commercial practices of content curating. Through connecting autoethnographic research with academic literature on the concept of ‘cultural intermediaries’, we identify two ways of understanding professional content curating - connected cultural intermediation, and curating literacies.

Researching Content Curators as Creative Labour

In his introduction to Curation Nation, Rosenbaum suggests that there is “both amateur and professional curation, and the emergence of amateur or prosumer curators isn’t in any way a threat to professionals” (3). Likewise, we do not see a threat or tension between amateur and professional curating. We are, though keen to address ‘professional’ strategic content curating for an intended audience as a notable difference and departure. 

To generate detailed insights into the role of the professional content curator we employed an autoethnographic approach. Holt’s review of the literature and his own experiences of autoethnography provide a helpful overview: “autoethnography is a genre of writing and research that connects the personal to the cultural, placing the self within a social context” (2). Specifically, we focus on Couzins’ personal experiences of content curating, his professional practices and his ‘cultural milieu’ (Reed-Danahay).

Couzins was a business-to-business journalist for 17 years before starting a content and communications agency that: helps organisations tell their story through curated and created stories; runs a media brand for corporate learning, which features curated content and a weekly curated e-mail; designs and delivers massive open online courses on the Curatr platform (a social learning platform designed for curating content).

The research and writing process for our analysis was informed by Anderson’s approach to analytical autoethnography, and from this we stress that Couzins is a full member of the research setting. Our focus on his experiences also resonates with the use of first-hand narratives in media industries research (Holt and Perren). Following preliminary exchanges, including collaborative note taking and face-to-face conversations, Ashton created an interview schedule that was then reviewed and revised with Couzins. This schedule was used as the basis for a semi-structured interview of around 90 minutes. Both authors transcribed and coded the interview data.

Through thematic analysis we identified and agreed on five codes: industry developments and business models; relationships with technologies; identifying and sharing information sources; curating literacies; expertise and working with/for clients. This research paper was then co-written.

As a conversation with only two participants, our account runs up against the widely stated concern associated with autoethnography of observing too few cultural members and not spending enough time with others (Coffey; Ellis, Adams and Bochner). However, we would argue that the processes of dyadic interviewing underpinned by self-analysis provides accessible and “useful stories” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner).

Specifically, Anderson’s five features helped to guide our research and writing from documenting personal experience and providing insider perspectives, to broader generalisation and “theoretical development, refinement, and extension” (387). Indeed, we see this research as complementing and contributing to the large scale survey research undertaken by Liu providing excerpts on how “technology bloggers and other professionals explain the value of curating in a networked world” (20).

The major theme emerging from the interview exchange, perhaps not unexpectedly, is how professional content curating revolves around making sense of specific materials. In acting as a bridge between the content and publications of some and its reception by others, literature on cultural intermediaries was identified as a helpful conceptual pointer.

The relevance of this concept and literature for exploring professional content curators is illuminated by Smith-Maguire and Matthews’ comments that “cultural intermediaries impact upon notions of what, and thereby who, is legitimate, desirable and worthy, and thus by definition what and who is not” (552). The process of curating content necessarily involves judgements on what is deemed to be desirable and worthy for clients. Scholarship on cultural intermediaries was explicitly explored in the interview and co-writing stages, and the following covers some of the meeting points between our research and this concept.

Content Curators as Cultural Intermediaries: Taste, Expertise and Value

The concept of cultural intermediaries has been explored by academics in relation to a range of industries. This paper does not necessarily seek to add content curators to the expanding list of occupations analysed through the cultural intermediaries’ lens. There are though a range of questions and prompts from studies on cultural intermediaries helpful for understanding the ways in which content is made sense of and circulated. 

Smith-Maguire and Matthews’s 2012 article ‘Are We All Cultural Intermediaries Now?’ is particularly helpful for connecting content curating with debates on cultural intermediaries. They consider how cultural intermediaries “effect other’s orientation” (552), and the question they pose is directly relevant for thinking through distinctions in curating ‘for/about me’ and ‘for others’.

The following statement by Couzins on a client relationship with a private membership network provides a useful account of what the job of content curating involves:

Each week I curate a set of articles or videos on hot topics that have been identified by network members. Once I have identified suitable content I upload links to their website, including a reading time and a short summary. These two elements serve to help members decide whether or not to read it and when to read it. For example, if they have a short train journey they might have time to read a ten-minute article. All articles are tagged so that the curated links become a deeper resource over time and members are alerted by e-mail each week when new links have been published.

The reference to “suitable content” highlights how the curator can shape a narrative by intentionally deciding what to keep in and what to leave out. Beyond this choice of what the client is directed to, there is also the importance of the “short summary” and thus how this curated content is packaged and made sense of by the curator for the client.

McFall, in her contribution to the Cultural Intermediaries Reader, offers a specific lens for examining the distinctive filtering practice of content curators as acts of ‘economization’. McFall outlines how economization “involves the work of ‘qualifying’ behaviours, organizations and institutions as economic. This is positioned in contrast to the idea that there is some kind of mystery “x-factor” which defines things as inherently economic” (46).

McFall explains how “things are rendered (i.e. they become) economic through the actions of producers, governments, research organisations, media, consumers, and so forth. Economization allows for the ways things may, throughout their life cycle, move in and out of being economic” (46). Whilst McFall’s comments recognise how things may be rendered economic through, for example, a ‘top ten list’, we want to specifically examine what this rendering looks like with the ‘professional’ content curator. The act of filtering is one of rendering, and the content that is curated and shared (whether it be articles, videos, links, etc.) becomes economic within this specific context.

Whilst there are many organisations that would provide the regular service of producing curated content, two distinctive approaches were revealed in our exchange. The first approach we identify concerns content curating as connected cultural intermediation, and the second approach we identify concerns facilitating curating literacies and co-creation with clients.

Connected Cultural Intermediation

Connected cultural intermediation refers to how content curators can connect with their own clients and with producers of content. As the following explores, these connections are built around being explicit and open about the content that curators identify and how they filter it. Being open with producers of content was important as these connections could lead to future opportunities for Couzins to identify content for his clients. 

Couzins addresses the connections he makes in terms of transparency, stating: “you just need to have some more transparency around you as the curator, like who you are, who you represent, why you are doing it, and the scope of what you are looking at.” Part of this involves identifying his impact and influences as a taste-shaper. Couzins remarks, “I'm creating a story […] but my point of view will be based on my interest in what I bring to the curating process.” Transparency was further presented as a part of the process in which judgements and validations are made: My reputation as a curator is based on what I curate, right? So therefore it has to be as sound as it can be, and I try to be as dispassionate as I can be about this.” These comments capture how transparency is integral for how Couzins establishes his reputation as a content curator.

Couzins promotes transparency in content usage by alerting content producers to where content is curated:

I also share on Twitter, so they [producers] know it's been shared because they are included in the retweets, for example. I would tell some people that I've linked to their stuff as well, and sometimes I would also say "Thank you," to so and so for linking to that. It's like thanking my supply chain, if you like. Because it's a network.

The act of retweeting also operates as a means to develop connections with producers of content. As well as indicating to producers that content is being used, Couzins’ reference to the “supply chain” indicates the importance he invests in establishing connections and the wide circulation of curated content.

One approach to content curating as a commercial practice could be to limit access and create a “pay wall” style scenario in which the curated content can only be accessed after a payment. Curated materials could be sent directly to e-mail or uploaded to private websites. For Couzins however, it is access to the flows of content and the connections with others that underpin and enable his content curating commercial practice. It is important for Couzins that curated content is available to the producers, clients and more publicly through his free-to-access website and Twitter feed.

The earlier reference to reputation as a curator in part concerned being dispassionate and enabling verification through open and explicit acknowledgements and links. This comment also addresses generating a reputation for “sound” information.  The following comments pick this up and point to the need for engaging with different sources: “I have got my own bubble that I operate in, and it's really challenging to get out of that bubble, bring new stuff in, or review what's in there. I find myself sharing stuff quite a lot from certain places, sometimes. You've got to work at that. It's hard.” Working hard to escape from the bubble was part of Couzins’ work to build his reputation.

Acknowledging producers is both a way for Couzins to promote transparency around his filtering and a way to foster new sources of content to escape the bubble: “I do build some relationships with some of the producers, because I get to know them, and I thank them, and I say, ‘That's really good,’ so I have a lot of relationships with people just through their content. But it's not a commercial relationship.”

Whilst Couzins suggests there may not be a commercial relationship with the producers of content, economic significance can be seen in two ways. Firstly, moving outside of the ‘bubble’ can help the content curator make more diverse contributions and establish a reputation for this. Secondly, these connections can be of benefit to content producers as their material further circulates. Whilst there is no payment to the content producer, Couzins directs this curated content to clients and does not restrict wider public access to it in this curated form.

McFall’s comments on economization stress the role of cultural intermediaries in the life cycle of how things “move in and out of being economic.”  With content curating there is a ‘rendering’ of content that sees it become significant in new contexts. Here, the obvious relationship may be between Couzins and his clients. The references to transparent relationships and thanking the ‘supply chain’ show that relationships with content producers are also crucial and that the content curator needs to be continually connecting.

Curating Literacies and Co-Creation

In the earlier discussion of cultural intermediaries we addressed framing and how judgements can shape legitimacy, desirability and worth. With the content curating cultural intermediary practices under discussion here, a different perspective is possible in which subject specialist knowledge and expertise may not necessarily be the primary driver behind clients’ needs. The role of the content curator as cultural intermediary here is still in the rendering of content. However, it does not specifically involve the selecting content but guiding others in the framing and circulation of content.

Where the concern of the client is finding appropriate ways to share the materials that they identify, then the content curator may not need subject-specialist knowledge. Here the interest in the content curating service is on the curating processes and practices, rather than content knowledge.

Couzins’ account revealed that in some cases the intermediary’s role is not about the selection of material, but in the framing of material already selected by clients for wider engagement: “People internally will decide what to share and tell you why it’s worth looking at. Basically, it’s making them look like they know what they’re talking about, building their credibility.” The content curator role  here does not concern selecting content, but offering guidance on how to frame it. As such, there remains a crucial “rendering” role in which the content selected by clients becomes meaningful through the guidance and input of the professional content curator.

Our interview exchange also identified another scenario of relationships in which the content curator has little involvement in either selecting or framing content. Part of the commercial activity explored in our interview included supporting staff within a client’s company to showcase their expertise and knowledge through both selecting and framing content. Specifically, as Couzins outlines, this could be undertaken as a bespoke face-to-face service with in-house training:

I helped one client put a curation tool into their website enabling them to become the curators. I spent a lot of time talking to them about curation and their role as curators. We split curation into topics of interest – based on the client’s area of expertise - which would be useful both internally for personal/professional development and externally for business development by sharing content relevant for their customers.

In this respect, the service provided by the content curator involves the sharing of their own curatorial expertise with clients in order that clients may undertake their own curatorial practice. There is for the client a similar concern with enhancing their social reputation and profile, but this approach stresses the expertise of clients in identifying and responding to their own content curating needs.

In part this emphasis on the client’s selection of material is about the challenges of establishing and maintaining legitimacy as a content curator across several fields: “You can't begin to say you're an expert when you are not, because you'll be found out.” More than this though, it was an approach to content curating literacy. As Couzins state, “my view is that if people with the domain expertise have an interest in doing this […] then they should be doing it themselves. If you gave it to me I hold the keys to all your knowledge. Why would you want that?”  The content curator and client exchange here is not restricted to gathering interests and then providing content. This scenario sees content curating as accessible, but also sees the curator in their continued role as cultural intermediary--where expertise is about mediation more than content. Returning to McFall’s comments on rendering as how things “move in and out of being economic”, our second understanding of content curating intermediaries directs attention away from what the things/content are to instead how those things move.

Conclusion

Set within debates and transformations around content and information abundance and filtering, this paper explored how the practices of filtering, finding, and sharing at the heart of content curating have much in common with the work of cultural intermediaries. 

Specifically, this paper identified two ways of understanding commercial content curating. Firstly, content curating involves the rendering of content, and the ability to succeed here relies on developing connections outside the curator-client dynamic. Secondly, professional content curators can approach their relationships with clients as one of facilitation in which the expertise of the content curating cultural intermediary does not rest with the content, but on the curating and the intermediating.

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Keywords


content curation; cultural intermediaries; creative labour



Copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Ashton, Martin Couzins

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