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Social curation is much more than just a market

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In 2010, “curation” popped up on tech blogs and VCs’ radars. Since then, people have been asking whether curation is a legitimate trend, a new market to be exploited, or just the latest buzzword.

Some people, including GigaOM writer Bobbie Johnson, have wondered if curation is a bubble, and if it is, when is it going to burst? When Johnson asked this question, I think the jury was still out. As the chief evangelist for the social library Pearltrees, I was directly involved in the “Web curation” movement early on, and I think it is now clear that social curation is not a bubble. The more I watch the development of social curation and the more I learn about the what, how and why of it, the more convinced I become that what we’re seeing is going to grow well beyond a simple market.

One of the characteristics of online activities that transcend simple markets is that they are analogous to behaviors that seem to be hardwired into humans. People have always had the desire to create, share what we’ve created and see what others have created. The emergence of the Web democratized access to content created by others in a way not seen since the invention of the printing press. And the explosion of sites that democratized our ability to share content gave us the second phase of the Web with the birth of wikis, blogs, video sharing sites and Twitter. I think of these services as the digital analog of primitive man sitting around the fire and telling stories.

Humans also love to collect things — from tiny stamps to shiny cars. And what do we do with these things once we have them? We play with our collections. We organize, shape and prune them, and we display our collections for the benefit of others and the occasional bragging right. “Curation” is simply a stiff sounding word for an innate human activity — collecting, organizing and sharing — that people are now engaging in online.

Compared to creating original content, curation is even easier. (The rapid growth of Pinterest proves this pretty clearly.) And it is a deeper part of our behavior than most people realize. The fact is, all of us are curating every single day. Simply choosing an outfit is an act of curation. Although those decisions are small and personal, they aren’t that different from the decisions made by a museum curator or a newspaper editor.

Our love of curation is being further democratized on the Web with the explosion of tools and startups that approach curation in different ways and with different business models. Investors have now bet well in excess of $150 million on companies that use the word “curation” to describe their business models.

Some examples of curation services include the following sites:

  • Pinterest, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is a site for collecting and sharing photos and videos. Currently, valued at more than $1 billion, the site uses affiliate links to generate some revenue. I think it will likely partner with brands and use advertising in the future.
  • Storify is designed to help journalists collect links, tweets and images and then organize them in the context of a story. The Washington Post is one of the major media outlets using the tool. The company has not announced a revenue model yet, but it hopes to make money while empowering journalists to do the same.
  • Pearltrees, the company I work for, is a social library that lets users collect links (and soon images and notes) and organize them however they like. The product also allows contributors to team up and curate topics collaboratively. The company has announced plans to offer premium features, including the ability to keep some or all of an account private for a monthly fee. Pearltrees sees more than one link per second added to its database by contributors, 24 hours per day.
  • is a newspaper style curation product that partially automates the collection of links. As such, it is really a hybrid curation and aggregation product with some social hooks. It has the potential to make money by placing ads in the newspapers its users create. It could then share some of this revenue with its users.

In my opinion, online curation isn’t going to be a winner takes all game. There are too many ways that people collect, too many different things that people collect and too many different types of collectors for this to happen.

Patrice Lamothe, the founder and CEO of Pearltrees, has called curation “the Web’s third frontier.” He argues that it was envisioned by the creators of the Web at the outset of the project and that it is a natural evolution of the medium.

I agree with his perspective. When we enable innate behaviors in the digital realm, the result is far more significant than the creation of a product — or a new market. I think we’ll soon realize that today’s curation startups are simply the earliest steps on the path to the full and complete democratization of a Web that each of us uses and also makes our own.

Oliver Starr is the chief evangelist for Pearltrees. Previously, he was the first employee at TechCrunch. He is also a well-known activist on behalf of wolves and wild places. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user Thea N.

10 Responses to “Social curation is much more than just a market”

  1. Curation is now an essential part of social media, and still only in its infancy. We are bombarded with information every minute we are on line. Our first need is to filter out the unimportant, that is improve the noise to signal ratio. Thereafter we need to be able to digest the important, not just scan it but understand it. This is where good curation is vital because it is helps to refine and augment the nuggets of information that are relevant. It is not enough just to store the data, it is our duty to try to relate it to other valuable content and to add to its value with our own or collaborative commentary.

    Most mature enterprises have enabled an Information Lifecycle Management discipline for their Corporate data (most commonly structured but increasingly unstructured as well). The processes and disciplines of the model are synonymous with the goals and requirements of curation, that is the discovery, care and nurturing of information on the social streams, not just for individuals but groups, organizations, enterprises and governments alike. For more information on ILM and curation see my post

    Keep up the great work at Pearltrees, one of my favorite curation tools.

  2. Peter Turner

    I’d also throw into the mix the observation that curation in all forms and “smart filter” aggregation will increase rapidly as search becomes stymied by the sheer volume of content that is being created and crawled for relevance by search engines.

  3. Very nice post about curation. As founder of @themeefy, I often get asked in meetings and demos (mostly by naysayers), why would people want to do this? What will they get? And the answer, as outlined in your post, is that its an innate human urge to curate. Its been there since ages and manifests itself in a wide range of ways.

    When we were kids, in the pre-internet era, we would cut out articles from magazines and put them in binders and bring them to school and show it to folks visiting us. There is hardly anyone who didn’t have some sort of a personal treasure chest of collectibles.

    Curation has just moved this urge to the digital medium and all these different services aren’t competing but simple catering to different folks out there.

  4. Dave Allen

    This is a way too simplistic understanding of curation as a skill, such as in museums and art galleries, and web curation. On the web, it is simply the human filtering of the massive amounts of content that are out there. No bubble because it is not special in any way, shape or form. It’s just what users do. And automated “curation” will just be an information flow disaster for everyone online..

  5. Eric Stephan

    it’s not that there are 10 or 20 dotcoms that allow people to curate. “curation” is a practice that arose with social media feeds like twitter and FB — the moment that people began to have thier contributions include two facets: (1) their own posts/observations/news, and (2) reposting goodies found elsewhere, either on the net or on others’ feeds. So — to talk about “who are the big new players in curation” is a bit beside the point. More “curation is a giant new phase of our online life, manifested in dozens of sites. here are a couple sites that lean ONLY on a certain kind of curation rather than integrating it into people’s broader sharing/collaborating.”