The rise of the content curator

Thu Dec 5, 2013

Information overload as a sociological idea has been around since the 19th century. With the rise of urban living, it was feared that city dwellers would become jaded and unable to react to new situations. Fast forward to today. Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds bombard us with the raw data of a human hive mind. A smorgasbord of movies is available to watch instantly on Netflix. Spotify and other streaming music services lets you listen to any song you want. Any book you’d ever want to read can be downloaded onto your Kindle in five seconds. Games can be downloaded onto your computer, console, or mobile device in less time than that. The sheer choice available today can be paralyzing.

The feeling of being overwhelmed with abundant choice is human nature. I’ve seen it myself when I taught writing to young students. Give a student a specific topic to write about and they may grumble but they’ll get to it immediately. Give students a blank piece of paper and tell them they can write about anything they want to, and guess what happens? They stare at that blank page in complete terror and complain they have nothing to write about (no wonder it’s a struggle to keep a blog updated regularly).

How does one choose what to read, watch, play, or listen to? Enter the content curator.

Content curation isn’t a new concept, but right now the focus is on crowdsourcing it. There’s nothing wrong with this. The most lucid comments on blog posts float to the top on Disqus. The most entertaining snippet of the day makes the Reddit front page. The wisdom of the crowds can be great, until they’re just wrong.

A case in point: Billions of people eat at McDonalds every day. The food is obviously awful; most sane people know that. But if an alien from another planet wanted a food recommendation, that alien would be in for a very rude surprise if he simply just followed the herd. An expert in the field could give that alien an educated opinion. We would call such an expert a restaurant critic. But the opinion of one critic is worth nothing if you don’t agree with her. But a group of critics who all agree, that is no longer an opinion - that is a consensus.

The critic consensus model already exists in some billion-dollar industries. Look at Rotten Tomatoes. The public may have adored Frat Party 3, but if the critics gave it 2 percent, you know what you’re in for. The game industry has Metacritic. The Wirecutter sifts through product reviews to recommend the best gadgets to buy. Interestingly, when there aren’t enough professional critics available, members of the community can be groomed and trained accordingly. Goodreads is a good example - an algorithm floats the most liked reviewers to the top. Yelp pays writers to check out restaurants in underserviced areas.

But content curation is becoming even more nuanced and personalized in niche areas, and I hope to see more of this micro approach. Take Circa for example, a news app that is curated by editors trained to pull out the most news-worthy stories, summarizing and formatting them for a very readable mobile experience. You can follow stories you are interested in, thus creating your own personal news tracker. A new music service spearheaded by Trent Reznor, Beats Music, hopes to curate the music experience by telling you what you should be listening to based on your tastes. It isn’t out yet, but I’m hoping to see a service with better recommendations than the bizarre algorithm-based ones you get on Spotify et al.

I’m looking forward to more of a marriage between the user, the content, and the content curators to give recommendations that personal touch. Because the wisdom of the masses is not always wise, and machines aren’t wise enough (yet).

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