Curation: Add Value and Pass It Along

Among all the topics that seem to rile journalists and publishers these days, perhaps the most contentious is curation. Is summarizing and linking to another person’s article an honorable act or a form of theft? How can you distinguish between good curation and bad curation?

Let me begin to answer those questions by summarizing and linking to Rex Hammock’s post last week on this very issue.

The act of finding great content and linking to it, he says, is a fine idea. Though he dislikes the term curation, he approves of the activity as it was originally practiced. But recently, he says, it has come to mean something less good:

Over the past three or so years, the term media curation has evolved in its meaning to being less-and-less an act of help and service and more and more a term that’s used to add lipstick to a pig of a business model that is based on something like the following: “go re-write stuff you find elsewhere that’s about whatever is trending on Google and bury a link to them somewhere towards the end of the story so we can claim it’s not merely re-writing their story.”

Hammock’s guideline for avoiding this fix seems pretty clear: If you can’t add value to a story, just link to it.

Perhaps not so clear is how to add value. I think most rational people would agree with him that many Huffington Post or Business Insider stories are really just rewrites. But short of that extreme, there’s plenty of disagreement.

The best recent example, perhaps, comes from Kashmir Hill’s story last February recapping Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article on consumer marketing and data mining. As Mathew Ingram wrote, opinion was sharply divided over whether Hill stole Duhigg’s story “in an attempt to get pageviews from someone else’s work” or whether she instead served a valuable function in highlighting and directing readers to his article.

When I read Hill’s story, I don’t see an attempt to get pageviews. What I see, rather, is someone who is intensely interested in Duhigg’s subject matter, admiring of his work, and intellectually engaged with his ideas.

I can’t find similar motivations in the pedestrian article Hammock criticizes. It’s simply the output of an aggregation serf.

The contrast between these two attempts at curation suggests to me a test that any writer should apply before blogging about another person’s story: Are you are genuinely engaged with it? If the answer is yes, chances are good you will add value in passing it along.

Is Rex Hammock the Groucho Marx of New Media?

In his autobiography, The Last Laugh, S. J. Perelman recalls that his first book included the following blurb from Groucho Marx:

“From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down,  I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Perelman doesn’t say how he felt about it, but given his admiration of the Marx Brothers, he was surely delighted.

I feel the same way about Rex Hammock’s blog post last week declaring my book, the New-Media Survival Guide, to be “awesome and a must read.” Does it worry me that his praise was preceded by the cheerful admission that, other than the two pages about him, he hadn’t read any of it?

Not at all. It’s classic Rex: funny, generous, and honest. It underscores my reason for featuring him in the book: if you want to understand new media, his blog posts and tweets are required reading.

UPDATE: Thanks to Bill Hudgins for suggesting the photo.

What Next? Chop Wood and Carry Water

The Candidate: What do we do now?

Yup, just like me.

After taking a day off from blogging yesterday—which seemed wrong, so very wrong—I felt the need to make a statement of some kind about my blogging plans. I just wasn’t sure what they were.

The feeling reminds me of one of my favorite movie moments, from the end of The Candidate. Having won election to the U. S. Senate, against all odds and only by contravening his most deeply held principles, Robert Redford looks at his campaign advisor in bewilderment and asks, “What do we do now?”

Less dramatically, and, I hope, in an ethically unblemished context, I found myself yesterday asking a similar question: What next?

In an idle moment, I considered several possible new objectives:

  1. Try to work a reference to fellow 1970’s-movies-alluder Rex Hammock into every post I write, thereby ensuring it gets at least one reader beyond my family members—assuming he meant what he said.
  2. Impress everyone with my keen insights into the state of new media today by secretly rewriting old blog posts by Paul Conley, substituting trendy terms for outdated ones, such as Twitter for AIM and Tumblr for MySpace. (But then I realized that I sort of already do that.)
  3. See if I can once again piss off Brian Clark with a mild, well-intentioned criticism of his excellent blog.

But while mulling over these tempting possibilities, I remembered something I was taught long ago by an English instructor at USC, Ken Hasegawa. To explain in whatever we were reading the surprisingly unexciting effects of a momentous epiphany on a character, he told us a Zen story: A student asks his master, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. What do I do after?” The master replies, “Chop wood and carry water.”

Although I haven’t achieved enlightenment by simply writing blog posts for 30 consecutive days, I think the advice applies. I’ll keep doing what I’ve done all along on this blog: covering with an analytical eye the intersection of new media with B2B publishing and communications.

The only difference, I hope, is that I’ll be chopping a lot more wood and carrying the water a lot farther.