Quantity & Quality

Curation in the networked age

I’m looking at the Pinterest home page and I’m trying to think of something nice to say. I was hoping to tell you about how the Internet is allowing everybody to be a curator and why that is a good thing but Pinterest is making that a little difficult. If you haven’t received an invite from your aunt/administrator/best friend from primary school yet, Pinterest is a social website that allows users to organise and share images on virtual pinboards. Unusually for a web start- up, 86% of the early adopters were female and you can tell. The home page is oppressively feminine, displaying the most popular ‘pins’ of the moment: a mixture of clothes, recipes, homemaking tips, inspirational aphorisms and general whimsy. It paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood that makes me want to scream: a hundred wet Wednesdays stuck in with small children; a thousand cupcake recipes and another thousand diet tips; a million wedding mood-boards. However, whether I like it or not is largely irrelevant. The lesson to take from Pinterest is that a bunch of suburban moms are now amongst the most influential curators in the world.

Before I explain why this is the case, let’s look at how we got here and what it means for curation. Networked and digital technologies have changed the way we live, work and play by vastly expanding the amount of stuff: stuff that is available, stuff that we can make, stuff that we can share. Curation has typically meant selecting the few from the many in order to fit within a limit of time, space or availability. The vast multiplication in quantity has effectively removed many of these limits: data storage capacity grows every day, digital media can be copied endlessly and your audience is now over 2 billion web users. And they are not just your audience; they are your fellow media outlet/gallery space/publishing company. Curation without these limits doesn’t disappear. Far from it. More people are involved in curatorial behavior than ever before but this change has led to new characteristics and behaviours emerging.

With the shift from the era of mass communication towards a many-to-many communication model, there has been an explosion of curatorial behavior on blogs, social media and other web-apps. Since there is no limit on space and the technology used is relatively simple, anyone can start their own online wunderkammer. Pinterest might be the first curatorial social web app to attract a large mainstream female audience but web-literate hipsters have been doing exactly the same kind of curation on blogging sites such as Tumblr for years. Blogs such as Black, WTF, But Does it Float? and Clients from Hell bring together media in collections defined by content and media (strange black and white pictures), aesthetic principle (abstract design and graphic arts) and experience (stories of clients behaving badly), respectively. Visitors can navigate either chronologically by the most recent addition or via themes as tagged by the contributors. Most of these blogs have a single curator or a small group, but some, like Clients from Hell, allow anyone to contribute a story or image.

This social aspect is taken a step further by sites like mysterious-image-bookmark-amalgamator ffffound.com. The collected images are often presented divorced from their original context, unaccredited and, in all likelihood, infringing copyright. These ephemeral images are ripe for appropriation and creative curation. This can be seen in graphic designer Anisha Peplinski’s self- initiated project ‘Book of Things, vol 1’. Peplinski, like many designers, had a folder of images collected from sites like ffffound on her desktop and rather than just let them accumulate, she decided to turn them into that most un-digital of objects, a book. The images are arranged one per page, each image visually rhyming with the next. By treating the images according to free association or their visual logic the sense of whole is changed, finding previously hidden relationships between skyscrapers and stealth planes. This very personal, very subjective form of curation, whilst not unique to the Internet age (surrealist montage was here almost 100 years ago), is certainly accelerated and facilitated by digital media.

It would be naïve to suggest that all images on the Internet are completely free from context and ownership. There is a prevailing moral attitude towards copyright amongst digital natives (people who have grown up with digital technology), which while differing from actual copyright law, isn’t a free for all either. Rather, it is a more permissive attitude towards derivative works, especially when not for commercial gain, that allows new forms of creativity to flourish. If Peplinski were to produce her book commercially, it would take years to clear the rights to use all the images used, wiping out any potential profits. However, she didn’t make it for that purpose and while the law and big media might not agree, most digital natives would not see the harm. This moral outlook is codified in the Creative Commons model, which allows a more flexible approach for creators, allowing them to give up certain rights while retaining others, for instance, allowing free distribution but forbidding commercial gain. While some companies see only a threat from these new models of copyright others are beginning to use it to their advantage.

Sites like Pinterest that curate and sort information based on social interactions create huge amounts of data about their users’ taste and habits. It is this that makes the users of Pinterest powerful and valuable because they are being watched and targeted by some of the biggest brands in world. The reason Martha Stewart and Whole Foods have rushed to appear alongside dodgy Etsy wares and Ryan Gosling fan art is that these companies understand that by allowing their customers to appropriate their images it creates a greater attachment to a brand. This ‘ownership’ by consumers can be a double-edged sword for companies, as consumers have a bigger stake in the way the products are presented and used.

It isn’t only big companies who are using this vast range of data; artists and designers are beginning to tap into it to understand and represent the world around them. The recent fashion for infographics is driven, in part, by the availability of vast datasets from new media companies such as Twitter or Google. Even government agencies are making their data available. For instance, if you sign up to their developer program you can access all of the Transport for London live travel data. This has allowed not only the out-of-house development of useful travel apps, but also insights into how the city’s transport network functions, such as Anil Bawa-Cavia’s ‘animated portrait’ of London’s bus network.

At first glance this might not seem to have much to do with curation since it deals with complete datasets rather than the selection of examples that represent the whole or tells a story. But as collections of media are becoming ever larger, the traditional tools and methods of the curator are dwarfed by the amounts available. New methods are needed which can deal with the quantities of data, such as ‘media visualisation’ as used by Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass. This technique presents both the picture made by the collection of media sorted by a quantitative property such as key colour or brightness and the original media allow them to be read on both a macro and micro level. Future curators are going to need to mix the quantitative with the qualitative in order to shape an understanding of our world.

If the keyword is ‘more’, if the wired age is defined by quantity, what happens to quality? For those who have devoted years to the study and practice of curation, the idea that all you need is a blog and an Internet connection might seem a little simplistic. What happens to the craft of curation? It cannot be replaced with a large number of amateurs nor number crunching algorithms and I would not for one second suggest that. Professional curators are needed now more than ever. However, the skills and knowledge that they possess need to be shared. The skills of a curator have never been needed more, especially in regard to maintaining an archive of the digital realm and recording and understanding the provenience of web media where the agenda of maker can be other than what it seems. As curation becomes an increasingly important way for people to understand the world around them they are going to need to learn this craft, as well as new skills that emerge to deal with the unique challenges of the online world. While Pinterest can seem like consumerism thinly veiled as creativity or as a ploy to ramp up the value of advertising space, it is not just that – users are using Pinterest to articulate their dreams and aspirations through curation. And while it might be a longshot, one day it might just produce the moodboard for a revolution.