I knew curation had a root in ‘look after’ but I’d framed this in terms of organise or sustain. The role of care in it makes the notion take on a completely different intonation.
While many see the term ‘curation’ as modish and vague, I see it as an important concept to make sense of how we can orientate ourselves within a changing cultural landscape. However I can sympathise with the thrust of these objections, in so far as they take issue with a sense of curation tied in with the worship of the new. Such a use of the term is possibly dominant, framing the curatorial imperative (selecting from available variety through filtering, commentary and evaluation) as a specialisation which emerges to cope with the late modern world. If we frame curation in this way, we miss out on the opportunity to explore how it has changed over time. See for example Nick Couldry’s Media, Self, World loc 1732:
Some literary cultures have been distinguished by the richness of their practices of commentary: the Jewish tradition of cabbala is frequently cited, but the ancient world’s general scarcity of textual objects meant that written manuscripts often reached people with the commentary of previous readers’ (so-called ‘scholiasts’) embedded within them, a tradition which reaches us now via the comments written in medieval versions of Greek texts.
Now we are entering an age of commentary for the opposite reason: because of the almost infinite proliferation of things to read and look at, we need to send signals to help each other select from the flux. At the same time, and for related reasons, our ability to send comments and signals has been massively extended by digital media: we take it for granted that by emailing or uploading a link we can point at something interesting we have just read and so alert someone on the other side of the world. The scope of commentary as a practice has been massively enlarged.
It is important that we can address problems and opportunities created by specific technologies without circumscribing our accounts in a way that limits them to these technologies. If we do so, we fail to recognise the continuities and we are inevitably left with anaemic conceptions of the human and the social which tend to be exhausted by the social-technical. From loc 1534 of Couldry’s book:
From searching, other practices quickly develop: practices of exchanging information by forwarding weblinks to family, friends or work colleagues, warehousing sites that collect recommendations from users so other users can narrow down their search practice (Digg, etc.), and tools for pre-ordered searches (RSS feeds and other alerts). These various search-enabling practices are increasingly prominent in everyday life as people seek to optimize their access to the vastly expanded flow of potentially relevant information. Their dispersed agency (anyone can forward a link or signal that they ‘like’ a post) contrasts with earlier centuries’ ways of disseminating interesting material: for example, the ancient and medieval world’s florilegia produced by groups of scholars, often in monasteries, who collected interesting quotes from otherwise obscure books into new volumes. Now not only do individuals (from their computers or phones, wherever they are) make the recommendations, but system interfaces, such as Digg and reddit, enable them to recommend cumulatively. Some commentators hope that ‘collaborative filtering’ and other collective forms of information sorting can challenge the dominance of Google and even create new forms of social bond.
How do we ensure we recognise these contrasts? How can we explore them in a way which allows us to productively theorise continuities and differences? There’s a fascinating meta-theoretical challenge here which I’d like to engage with seriously in future.
The term ‘curation’ has got a bad press in recent years. Or rather the use of the term beyond the art world has. To a certain extent I understand this but I nonetheless always feel the need to defend the term. There are a few reasons for this:
- In a context of cultural abundance, selection from variety becomes important within a whole range of contexts. Inevitably, it is something most people within these contexts will do most of the times. But ‘curation’ is becoming a specialised activity, even if detached from a specific social role.
- I’m prone to thinking of what I do, at least some of the time, as curation. I spend quite a lot of time each week sorting through mailing lists, newsletters, websites, blogs and social media to identify relevant content for The Sociological Review’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is 46 social media posts per day. I’ve also shared something on Sociological Imagination daily for almost seven years. I don’t particularly care what anyone else calls it but, as far as I’m concerned, doing it effectively is a skilled activity and ‘curation’ is the term I’ve taken to using.
- The modern sense of the word ‘curation’ rests on a specific set of institutional arrangements which are themselves relatively recent. The word has a longer history, emerging from the Latin curator (“overseer, manager, guardian“) and what many construe as a misapplication could just as easily be taken as a further shift in its use. Language is dynamic and the anti-‘curation’ rhetoric is an attempt to police its change, albeit not a particularly significant or pernicious one.
Ultimately, I don’t care if people reject this use of the term ‘curation’. I do care if people reject what the term ‘curation’ comes to designate. I don’t dispute it is often used in a vacuous way, but it is not always used this way. It is nebulous and modish but the terms which emerge in relation to socio-cultural transformations often are.
It’s the socio-cultural changes which interest me, the abundance digitalisation is giving rise to and the epistemic fog which emerges as a result. To talk of ‘curation’ is a facet of that conversation and if people want to reject its use, I hope they’ll offer an alternative language for talking about selection from abundance as an institutionalised function within digital capitalism.
Two new projects I’m in the early stages of working on both necessitate engagement with phenomena that are developing rapidly. This poses an obvious question: how to identify relevant material and then archive it in a useful way? I’ve written a lot about the curation process before and I won’t rehash it here. Instead, I want to explain a new strategy I’m using. Every time I tweet with the hashtag #Distraction or #DigitalElites, the service IFTTT automatically saves the tweet to a text file in my DropBox. For those unfamiliar with it, there’s an explanation of how IFTTT works here.
This lets me share the item I’ve found, as well as briefly reflect on it. It also facilitates conversation at each stage of the project, adding to my engagement with the item I’ve shared. In doing so, I hope it will help avoid the ‘graveyard of links’ problem, where a vast archive of once useful material becomes intractable when it lacks context and hasn’t been filtered through prior engagement.
This useful post on the Pickle Jar blog offers some pointers about effective live tweeting. I agree it’s important to remember that most (?) people reading your live tweets won’t be in the room with you and thus will be confused by any features of the context you take for granted in your tweets. In that sense, I think this is excellent advice:
Context is key. If you’re sending a tweet out into the world, assume your audience knows very little. If you hear something interesting, try to share it as if you’re sharing words of wisdom with someone who wasn’t there. Feel free to paraphrase, and take pictures of the slides if there’s just too much amazing stuff on there for 140 characters. Those who aren’t there will get something out of it, and those that are will have a reminder that they can re-tweet or favourite.
But surely live tweeting also serves a purpose for people within the room? The experience of live tweeting has often lived up to the rhetoric of the ‘back channel’: offering an outlet for both exchange with and awareness of other people at the event, many of whom I’ve never previously met. There are obviously risks posed by this (a topic for another post) but it’s also something that can introduce a novel sociality into what might otherwise be a large and impersonal event.
This is why I think it’s important to distinguish between the official live-tweeter (scene setter, context communicator and summariser in chief) and the voluntary live-tweeting of others at the event. Part of the role of the former is to encourage the latter through regular retweets and rapid responses to any questions. But another crucial part is to provide a sufficient sense of the context to ‘outsiders’ for the flurry of activity taking place amongst ‘insiders’ to be comprehensible and engaging. The insider activity isn’t a threat to the quality of the live tweeting, it’s rather what can make a hashtag fascinating to read if there is someone mediating between the two in order to ensure that ‘insiders’ don’t exclude ‘outsiders’ by taking their shared context for granted.
There are numerous ways to establish context: regular reminders of what the hashtag is (e.g. “We’re live tweeting from @BritSoci conference day 2, #BritSoc15”), taking pictures of the venue itself to convey a sense of place, regular statements of the schedule (e.g. “Our next speaker is @mark_carrigan from @SocioWarwick talking about social ontology of social movements”) and signalling openness to queries (e.g. “If you have any questions about #BritSoc15, whether you’re here or not, please get in touch!”). This kind of activity can help if you’re subsequently using the hashtag as a basis to compile a report of the event by providing way marks to make sense of what can be a vast stream of activity. But more importantly I think it also contributes to the accessibility of the event, structuring what might otherwise be an intimidating mass of communication and doing so in a way which encourages it to grow.
There’s a really important suggestion later in the Pickle Jar post which I’ve only recently started doing myself:
One way to really add some useful background is to start digging up links. Is the person on stage mentioning a project they worked on? Dig up a link to that project (or better still, a video about it), and share that on the conference hashtag. Do they have a personal site, with background detail? Go find it, and share it. It may seem like a bit of a slog, but Google is your friend here.
I prefer to live tweet on a phone but I’m planning in future to always use my laptop for this reason. If someone mentions a paper they’ve written, look it up and tweet the link! Tweet the institutional profile of the speaker and always ensure you link to their personal twitter feed and tag the department as well if they have a twitter presence. In this sense, the official live tweeter does a large part of the ‘networking’ in order that other people don’t have to.
There’s suggestions later in the post which I’ve experimented with in the past but found people quite reluctant to participate in. Perhaps it’s how I’m phrasing it? But the promise of Audioboom for micro-podcasts with speakers really fascinates me and I’ve love to find a way to suggest this possibility to speakers that doesn’t immediately make them recoil in horror:
While you’re there, how about tracking a few speakers down for an audio interview? We’ve already chatted about the possibilities of platforms such as Audioboom, and you can use these with little more than a smartphone and a quiet sideroom or corridor.
If video’s more your thing, why not provide some great content for curators and your followers by capturing a quick chat or a tech demo using Youtube Capture, Vine, or Instagram Video? Or if you’ve got an audience that isn’t in a wildly-different timezone, why not livestream an interview or a quick event summary using Periscope or Meerkat?
I’ve written in the past about my dislike for Evernote and near continuous search for an alternative to it. I won’t rehearse my issues with it here but the one that really matters is that I simply can’t stand the interface. I find it hard to pin down precisely what my problem with it is but I feel immensely antipathetic towards using it. It just doesn’t cohere with how I think or with the kinds of information I want to use it to record. The notebooks soon become arbitrary structures, filled with information organised in a sub optimal way and I’m never known how to rectify that state of affairs. To be fair, this was every bit as true when I used to carry organisational clutter around in moleskine notebooks instead: ‘notebooks’ provide too much organisation at the macro level and too little organisation at the micro level. Perhaps for these reasons, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that there’s something about Evernote and something about myself which just isn’t going to be compatible, no matter how many times I hear people who I respect sing its praises. I’ve tried Centrallo, which uses a structure that does work for me, though I realised that in spite of the ontology (I like lists much more than notebooks!) being more suitable, as well as the interface and synching being excellent, it was set up to store much more information than I was ever likely to need it for.
I recently started using Day One journal instead. It’s a carefully designed app, available for iOS and OS X, described as a “simple and elegant journal”. However it’s remarkably feature rich in spite of this simplicity, including reminders, photos, location, automatic backup, iCloud synching, publishing to social media and PDF exports amongst many others. I suspect there’s a risk the developers compromise its ‘elegance’ if they continue to add functionality but at least thus far they have not. The thing that made me fall in love with this app was the experience of writing – in a manner only matched by the Medium blogging platform, it makes writing a pleasure with a lovely distraction-free white screen waiting to be filled, complete avoidance of the lag that often characterises typing on iOS apps, markdown support and oddly satisfying Tweetbot like tapping noises as you type. The entries are filed chronologically, which I realised I associate with blogging these days much more readily than I do an actual journal, though can be favourited and tagged, as well as searched in a variety of ways.
The material I wanted to use Evernote for is probably much more specific than what most people use it for. I want a place to store my plans – I’ve been using Omnifocus for a few years now and I’m so entrenched in this way of reflexively organising my life that I would probably cease to function without it. However Omnifocus is task-orientated – the whole system is designed around the enactment of short, medium and long-term projects as sequences of discrete actions which should only be visible to you at the correct moment. It’s a system designed to overcome procrastination and inertia by offering you a continuing stream of relevant actions which you can take to work towards overarching projects of whatever sort, avoiding overwhelm by shielding the many actions which aren’t relevant (at this particular moment in this particular context) from your awareness. It’s hard to use, literally taking me a year to get to grips with the software, but when it does work it’s difficult to describe how powerful it is. Hence I think the creepy tone which often creeps into discussions about it. The problem with Omnifocus is that it’s not set up to store reference material (in the GTD sense) adequately* – the information which both informs your planning and is required by it, stuff you need to consult in the process of doing things but also to work with as a basis to decide what to do. This is what I’m now using Day One journal for and it really seems to work – I write ad hoc notes in the diary as things occur to me, stuff that I used to put in my Omnifocus inbox but that isn’t actually action orientated and so shouldn’t be in there, which I then review in the same way as I do with Omnifocus. Those thoughts, ideas, realisations etc that are important get tagged and incorporated into a structure which keeps track of the broader perspectives (20,000 to 50,000 feet in GTD terminology) which I’ve found tend to be collapsed into the temporal horizon of a few months at most in Omnifocus:
I really like this way of working and it’s the first time I’ve found an app like this which I suspect I’ll stick with. However I think my experience illustrates a broader point about information capture and organisational apps like Evernote: what do you actually want to use it for? What is it you’re trying to capture? How are you trying to organise it? It’s only when we address these questions that we can begin to get a handle on which apps will actually help us do things more effectively in a way that avoids distraction and procrastination. So in that spirit, here are the various apps I use and the purposes I use them for:
- I use my Gmail account as a catch all place to store URLs that I might later want to retrieve. I can access it from anywhere I have an internet connection and everything goes into two folders ‘blogging/twitter’ and ‘reading’ (for academic papers) which then become inboxes of sorts for blogging (particularly for Sociological Imagination) and for research (the papers are unstructured but the reason I’ve saved them is because they’re relevant to a project).
- I use Pocket to capture online stuff (up to and including LRB length long reads) which I want to read but don’t care about saving the citation details for. If I don’t think I’ll pay attention to it when I come across it or if it would distract me to do so then I save it to Pocket. This leaves it accessible on my iPhone and/or iPad at a time which is more conducive to reading it attentively.
- I use Bundlr to organise online stuff for other people. If I think it’s useful to others to collect a package of links and share on Twitter then this is an easy and effective way to do it.
- I use Papership to collect PDFs, bibliographic details and notes I’ve made on journal articles and books etc.
- I use my blog as a commonplace book – extracts, videos or images that I’ve found interesting in some way and want to ensure I can retrieve at a later date (i.e. unlike things in Pocket where I just want to make sure I read them properly).
- I use my blog as a research journal – collecting short thoughts, mini essays, notes on reading, responses to papers etc in a way that I group into thematic tasks and come back to as a resource when I’m doing ‘serious’ academic writing.
- I use Day One to keep track of what I’m doing and why in a general overarching sense.
I suspect Evernote works very well for 1-6. I’m not convinced it works well for 7. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to disentangle my own use of apps from the broader practical needs they serve because I’m writing a chapter of my social media book on curation tools and managing information at the moment. So if anyone has got this far, I’d love to hear whether activities 1 to 7 map on to your own use of apps and experience of reflexively approaching your work.
*You can add attachments to projects but this atomises overarching plans. There’s no space for ‘big picture’ stuff in Omnifocus.
I realised when looking back over old notes that someone asked me to write this for them and then never published it. So here’s a quick post about curation I wrote a couple of years ago:
For all that digital technology offers the academy, it also presents new problems. The instant availability of information from all over the word poses the inevitable challenge of how to collect, sort, evaluate and share this information. These are tasks which those working in universities, across the full range of roles, have always performed. However the sheer abundance which characterizes our modern knowledge environment too often results in information overload for those whose professional and personal interests give them no choice but to engage with this torrent. It is for this reason that curation tools, often ‘seen as the next big thing’ of social media, offer the potential for such enormously gainful use by university staff.
Curation is the broader concept behind Pinterest, by far the most well known of these tools. The service operates as a virtual ‘pinboard’, allowing the user user to explore the internet, collecting images they find through the use of a convenient browser button (in a similar way to creating new browser bookmarks) and make these titled pinboards available online. However Pinterest is just one tool amongst many and, with its central focus being on images, in many ways it is less versatile than some of the others. Here are three of my favorites:
Storify allows users to search multiple social networks and knit together items they find into sequential stories. I’ve personally found this useful for preserving Twitter debates that I’ve found particularly intellectually stimulating. However this only represents part of what the tool is capable of if you combine a sufficiently diverse range of elements, whereas my uses have been merely been reconstructing conversations on one medium that I was actively involved in. The most impressive uses I have seen have tended to revolve around covering events, either live or retrospectively.
Bundlr is my personal favorite and I can’t recommend it enough. As with the others, you use a browser button to ‘bundle’ content. When you’re on a web page which you want to curate, press the button and either choose an existing bundle or make a new one. What’s most impressive about Bundlr is how it combines the ability to handle many types of content (e.g. youtube videos, images, tweets, presentations, web pages) with effortlessly making the finished product look aesthetically appealing. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up and use. Within a few hours of signing up to Bundlr I had multiple bundles which had collectively received hundreds of hits.
Scoop.It allows you to publish ‘magazines’ based on content you ‘scoop’ through a browser bookmark. Whereas some of the other tools focus more on collating items, Scoop.it offers more room for curation in the strict sense of the term: it gives you more opportunity than the other tools to control what aspects of your ‘scooped’ items are highlighted and what commentary you offer about them. It also has an interesting, though in my experience not quite perfected, tool which automatically offers you ideas about things to ‘scoop’.
If the concept of curation interests you then I would advise experimenting with a few tools to see which one is right for you. While there are undoubtedly objective differences between them, there is also a large aspect of subjective fit: each of them rests on some underlying embodied metaphor (e.g. pinning on your pinboard, putting items in a bundle, scooping up items for your scrapbook newspaper) and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use these tools. Here are some of the things I have used them for: making resource packs for social media training, inventorying journal articles I use in my research, producing a portfolio of projects I have been involved in, pulling materials together to help prepare for projects I have yet to start and collecting materials about my favourite authors. But there are many other ways in which they can be used. Curationtools will enhance any task that involves collecting, sorting, evaluating and sharing digital material.
Do you suffer from information overload? Do you find it difficult to organise and process the things you find online so that you can apply them productively in your day-to-day working life? If so then curation tools could transform your experience of the digital world. Increasingly seen as the ‘next big thing’ of social media, the last year has seen an explosion of different tools which can be used to manage, sort and catalogue material. However the novelty, as well as the choices available, render them confusing – what tool should you use and how should you use it? Furthermore what are the specific uses to which academics can put these tools?
Curation is the broader concept behind Pinterest, by far the most famous of these tools, which was the subject of Deborah Lupton’s great article a few weeks ago. She notes how Pinterest “draws upon the idea of older techniques of collage or scrapbooking: collecting interesting images, grouping them together under a theme and displaying them to others“. It allows the user to go round the internet, collecting images they find through the use of a convenient browser button (in a similar way to creating new browser bookmarks) and make these titled pinboards available online. Crucially, it also allows users to add a commentary to each ‘pinned’ item and, I would argue, this is where collating online material becomes curating in the proper sense of the term. As Lupton says, few academics seem to have heard of Pinterest. Yet even fewer academics, as well as internet users more broadly, seem to realise how many curation tools are out there. I briefly discuss four I’ve experimented with below though, I should stress, there are others out there. At the heart of all these tools are the same core practical tasks which anyone working in an information rich environment faces: collecting, sorting, evaluating and sharing information.
While Pinterest is primarily focused on images, the others are, arguably, more versatile. Furthermore as Lupton astutely points out of Pinterest and its ‘pinboards’, these tools tend to be structured around some central embodied metaphor e.g. ‘bundling’ up a range of things you find online or ‘scooping up’ things you find online and pasting them into your ‘magazine’. Beyond the practical features of each, for instance the centrality of images in Pinterest, I would suggest that these metaphors are actually a key factor in why particular individuals will take to particular services e.g. without realising it I’ve been thinking in bundles for a long time and just got the point of the service instantly when I used it. So it’s definitely worth experimenting with them and seeing which one you’re most intuitively comfortable with. Much as with other digital tools, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use these – it all comes down to your practical purposes, how they unfold as you experiment with different tools and which ones you ultimately find most useful for your personal needs.
- Storify is perhaps the mostly widely known of these four. It allows you to search multiple social networks and knit together items you find into sequential stories. I’ve found this useful for preserving Twitter debates that I’ve particularly enjoyed. However I’m aware this only represents part of what the tool is capable of if you combine a sufficiently diverse range of elements, whereas my uses have merely been reconstructing conversations on one medium that I was actively involved in. The most impressive uses I’ve seen have tended to revolve around covering events either retrospectively or live.
- Bundlr is my personal favourite and I can’t recommend it enough. As with the others, you use a browser button to ‘bundle’ content. When you’re on a web page which you want to curate, press the button and either choose an existing bundle or make a new one. What’s most impressive about Bundlr is how it combines the ability to handle many types of content (e.g. youtube videos, images, tweets, presentations, web pages) with effortlessly making the finished product look aesthetically appealing. With their latest update this became particularly true of embedding bundles in webpages. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up. Within a few hours of signing up to Bundlr I had multiple bundles which had collectively received hundreds of hits. I honestly don’t understand how I kept track of things I wrote and read online prior to using the service.
- Scoop.It allows you to publish ‘magazines’ based on content you scoop through a browser bookmark. Whereas some of the other tools focus more on collating items, Scoop.It offers more room for curation : it gives you more opportunity than the other tools to control what aspects of your ‘scooped’ items are highlighted and what commentary you offer about them. It also has an interesting, though in my experience not quite perfected, tool which offers you ideas about things to ‘scoop’. One feature I particularly like about Scoop.It is that it lets you tweet whenever you scoop a new item. In this way it integrates the curation process with managing twitter accounts. Though this might not be appealing to everyone, it’s a potentially invaluable time saver for those who manage multi-author blogs and multiple social media accounts. I like Scoop.It a lot and, if I had more time, I’d use this. Although I’d qualify this by saying I’d use it in my capacity as a social media manager rather than as an academic researcher.
- Pearl Trees is perhaps the most intriguing and yet, in my experience, the least practical. It takes a mind-mapping approach to curation, enabling you to collect ‘pearls’ (webpages, text notes or photos) and arrange them into hierarchical structures. I found it fascinating to explore and the interface is very different to anything else I’d come across. Nonetheless, I just didn’t ‘get’ it, beyond my abstract curiosity. It’s worth trying though and, even if your reaction is the same as mine, it’s definitely one to watch. When researching this article, I discovered that since I last used Pearl Trees they’ve introduced ‘bi-directional’ synchronization with social media. So rather than just auto tweeting when you add an item to your Pearl Tree, it can also add a pearl whenever you tweet a link. In practice I suspect this might not work as it should but, nonetheless, it has certainly induced me to give Pearl Trees another go.