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It’s not curation or aggregation, it’s just how the Internet works

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For some time now, the hot new buzzword for Web services has been “curation.” Whether it’s Pinterest or Tumblr or Flipboard or, everyone wants to ride the curation wave. But what does it mean, and how do you do it properly? And what makes it different from aggregation? Those kinds of debates have been around in one form or another since the Internet was invented, but they have resurfaced lately thanks to two proposals. One is trying to come up with a “code of conduct” for curators and aggregators, and the other is promoting the use of special symbols to give credit to original sources. These efforts may be well-intentioned, but they are also misguided and likely doomed, as virtually every attempt to control the Internet has been.

The code of conduct (which its proponents emphasize would be voluntary, thankfully) is the brainchild of a group of journalists including Simon Dumenco, a media writer for Advertising Age magazine, who has complained vociferously in the past about being mistreated by outlets such as the Huffington Post(s aol) who “over-aggregated” his content — that is, took too much of it, didn’t provide enough credit or committed a variety of other sins related to aggregation. While the Huffington Post has been a target of this kind of criticism more than any other new-media entity, largely because of its size; similar charges ricochet around the Web regularly involving a number of publications.

It’s called curation if you like it, aggregation if you don’t

Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill was attacked by many for taking chunks from a New York Times story (which was actually an excerpt from a book) and turning them into a blog post that allegedly “stole” traffic from the newspaper, even though the Forbes post contained multiple links to the NYT piece and gave it plenty of credit. That incident alone makes it clear just how complex the issue of curation or aggregation still is and how blurry the lines are between what is fair and what is not. And while the New York Times was the alleged victim in that case, it and other mainstream outlets are also routinely criticized for their failure to link to the sources of the stories they report on, behavior that is defended by many as totally ethical.

For anyone who has been around the blogosphere and the social Web for longer than a year or two, these discussions sound awfully familiar. Just a few years ago, some were advocating a code of conduct for bloggers, in part because of a violent cyberbullying attack on blogger Kathy Sierra. The problem with that effort was the same as it is with the current version: While it may be well-intentioned, no one who is actually doing the bad things that the code is supposed to prevent will pay any attention to it, as Gawker has pointed out. Those who choose to “over-aggregate” content, try to disguise the links they provide, or do dozens of other shady or unethical things will simply continue to do them.

We already have a way of giving credit: It’s called the hyperlink

In some ways, the attribution codes that Maria Popova — a masterful curator herself, through her Brainpickings website and related Twitter feed — wants to promote as a solution are both better and worse than the “code of conduct” idea. They seem like a more elegant and Web-native solution than a statement of ethical principles: a pair of codes that bloggers or any online publisher can include that provide credit to the original source of the content they are curating or aggregating. And yet, my suspicion is that virtually no one will use them, because they require too much effort.

And we already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink. Plenty of people don’t use the hyperlink as much as they should (including mainstream media sources such as the New York Times, although Executive Editor Jill Abramson said at SXSW that this is going to change) while others misuse and abuse them. But used properly, they serve the purpose of providing credit quite well. How to use them properly, of course — especially for journalistic purposes — is another whole can of worms, as Felix Salmon of Reuters and others have noted. And when it comes to curation and aggregation, it seems as though curation is what people call it when they like it, and aggregation is what they call it when they don’t.

In the end, this is a cultural thing, not something that can be legislated or imposed, either by a code or by inscrutable symbols. If you are a born blogger like Om or someone who lives and breathes the “link economy” (or whatever you want to call it), then you will understand good behavior and bad behavior. And you will know that eventually those who break the unwritten code or the ethical principles that have developed will get what is coming to them, because they will lose the trust of their readers — and trust, as we have pointed out before, is the new black when it comes to the media business. It can’t be measured or legislated, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Woodley Wonderworks

6 Responses to “It’s not curation or aggregation, it’s just how the Internet works”

  1. steve rosenbaum

    For a bit of important clarity – Aggregation and Curation are not interchangeable. Aggregation is an algorithmic solution that gathers content based on a predetermined formula. Curation is a human selection process, often with a technology providing a feed, and a human editor making final choices and providing context. Curation is core to the remix culture, and when people simply cut and paste without adding value or editorial effort that’s simply plagiarism. The difference is clear to any reader or content creator.

  2. I’ve wondered the same thing: How to curate properly..? What is the standard, other than giving credit to where it’s due? I guess, it all comes down to common sense and a better judgement where ethics are called for. Besides, context ( not content ) is king these days.

  3. Please consider that a hyperlink to an article could be a picture of my finger nail. If it was a picture of my finger nail, and not a photo thumbnail, a headline and the lead of the article, then it wouldn’t really involve plagiarism would it?

    So why do you think it’s the nature of the Internet that makes stealing ok? I think it’s people making choices.

    You really need to understand that many hyperlinks are actually plaigerism.

    Perhaps you don’t understand that the Internet is made by people.

    • Uninterested Party

      The fact that you can neither spell plagiarism or correctly interpret the article makes your comment highly suspect. There’s nothing about a hyperlink intrinsically that is “stealing,” and there’s nothing about attributing ideas to places where they have been shared and reshared that’s stealing. What is stealing is taking original ideas and claiming they’re your own–none of which is what anyone here is suggesting.

      This curation buzz is really an attempt to impose information management on a web that has more sources of information than anyone can possibly absorb, and to eliminate the annoyance of running into the same information more than once. In the end, it is a very entitled and irrational response to try and minimize the methods by which sites, blogs, and other people on the web share and remix the things they read, and clamp down on the development of new ideas based on or jumping off from old ones. It’s sad.

      In the end, someone is saying “I’m tired of reading the same things on so many blogs. I wish I could just get the original story delivered directly to me without having to prune my personal information consumption to accomplish that. I’d rather make someone else do it for me, and while I’m at it I’ll eliminate the people who both derive from the original idea and improve upon it in one fell swoop–all for the sake of my own personal sanity, which I’d rather give someone else responsibility for.”

      I can’t wait for this fad to pass.