Tuesday, October 16

gathering gravity and dust

curation seems to be a big new thing in the world, what with this internet magic making it so easy. but the idea of taking existing junk and reframing it somewhere else is not really that new. in my fat green copy of The Rhetorical Tradition there is an old Latin manual of rhetoric called "Rhetorica ad Herennium." the anonymous author goes into detail about many things, firstly the value and ethics of appropriating examples from other sources. here is the beginning of the conversation he has with his imagined opponent who requests acknowledgement for merely arranging others' written works:
"But," they say, "this very choice from among many is difficult." What do you mean it is difficult? That it requires labor? Or that it requires art? The laborious is not necessarily the excellent. There are many things requiring labor which you would not necessarily boast of having done--unless, to be sure, you thought it a glorious feat to have transcribed by your own hand whole dramas or speeches!"
that thought reminds me of Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing, which I reviewed recently and found quite fascinating, if sloppily typeset. the author retyped the New York Times once just for fun, as an experiment in uncreativity. that was twelve years ago, in 2000. "Rhetorica ad Herennium" is one of the the oldest surviving books on rhetoric, published just a few decades before Christ was born. even back then, we had people questioning the value of assembling things from other sources. that curation takes work and skill doesn't necessarily mean it's worth doing. or worth celebrating.

but people do it. why? the roots of the word go back to the Latin curatus, pp. of curare "to take care of," and it was priests who did this sort of thing. spiritual care. gathering. watching. shepherding. guarding stuff that seemed important or valuable.

and now we gather and shepherd the details of the hyperlinked universe. we snip things and paste things and copy things. make scrapbooks, make archives, make galleries. some if it is ours, and some of it we just find. these people propose the act of discovery to be a creative labor. okay. sure. sometimes you do have to be looking for stuff in order to find it... but is even that--mere looking--a significant labor, particularly in this era of recycled, reposted, reblogged, reshared, remixed everything? when there are so many people doing this, and so much detail out there to be stumbled upon, do we really want to say your average person deserves credit for that?

perhaps we'll conduct a small, cursory case study, shall we? Chris and I were discussing the increasingly incestuous merry-go-round that is a certain conglomerate of blog/tumblr/twitter/facebook "curation." these sites are bastioned by the personality and preferences of Maria Popova. here in an interview from 2.5 years ago, she calls her site "a destination for indiscriminate curiosity." indiscriminate, eh? and yet... the posts she stitches together fit within recognizable boundaries. there are themes. not very subtle themes either. heavy-handed, undeniable themes. and they crop up over and over again: writing advice. quirky, artsy, hipstery takes on science or history. inspirational lists and doodles and one-liners. the taste of it all gets incredibly predictable. and yes, alright, even my own indiscriminate curiosity tends to move in certain somewhat-defined circles, too. everything will inevitably have a frame. but the difference is this little blog is a singular place. these posts are not being recycled in shorthand as cool-awesome-insightful-soundbite fodder on tumblr.

the same interview broaches the problem of "rehashed content," which Popova rebuts with a comment about remixing. what she cites as important is the way "these pieces fit together, what story they tell by being placed next to each other, and what statement the context they create makes about culture and the world at large." remix is cool. it is valuable. I'm all for pulling interesting stuff together and putting it next to other interesting stuff. but reposting and relinking the same stuff again and again, even if you did originally twist some remix into it, seems nauseatingly lazy.

ironically, Popova has recognized this laziness in other curation feeds. referencing coudal.com and their stream of guest-curated interestingness, she says:
"I read their FreshSignals feed religiously and respect them a great deal, but lately I’ve seen an increasing number of unintentional reposts, things that they’ve already featured as little as two days earlier, or regurgitation – content that has already made the mainstream rounds across the BoingBoings of the world. Which only illustrates the importance of having a singular vision and narrative, rather than a flavor-of-the-month approach to the curatorial yardstick."
singular vision she may have, but I daresay Popova isn't immune from regurgitation. only in her case it doesn't seem to be unintentional.

tons of things are possible now that weren't possible before the magic of the internet. what used to be the domain of priests and museum directors is now something anyone with a Pinterest account likely spends hours doing every Saturday morning. content curation. last month NPR talked about the abuse of the word and whether or not it's worth squirming over. the story cites George Shackelford of the Kimball Art Museum (I've been there once. 'twas lovely), who insists "real curating entails truly taking care of, and taking stock of, something original or valuable...tak[ing] responsibility."

originality may be its own shade of undefinable, but we'll save that bag of questions for another time. when it's click-simple to copy, paste, and re-share a thing, must we really feel obliged to treat that as a unique and worthwhile creative endeavor? I don't know. maybe the curation bandwagon is too crowded at the moment. too full of too much. or maybe we need a new word for some of these less-responsible acts of gathering. if we keep calling it "curation," are we degrading the work real-life curators do? or should we all just relax and let the future happen?
{ image borrowed from this kind soul on flickr. }

(postscript.) while we're here talking about things that are annoying and questionable, I'll toss this not-related-at-all rant in here at the bottom:

I am and have been for a long time now utterly sick of link shorteners. I hate them. I mean, okay, if you really have a reason to save space and squash your URL down into unrecognizable chopped liver, fine. appease all the 140-characters-only twitterfolks, whatever. but if not, just stop. it's inaccessible, it's annoying. it's just dumb. case study number 2 for today--all of the links to our the Full-text Databases of Literary Texts on our library's website are linked using shortened URLs and I think it's idiotic. the end.


Janeheiress said...

You like links that are a string of 50 random letters that don't mean anything?

amelia chesley said...

as long as they are honest, sure. usually at least the beginning of those links gives you some idea where you'll end up-- bit.ly/xyz tells me nothing at all!

Chris said...

Note to all readers: Amelia hates shortened links so much because I keep cryptically linking her to lolcats. Or is that just two hatreds in one? :P

A surprisingly scathing post, but as you know I agree with it (except for the shortened links part--at least to that degree). I liked Brain Pickings and its family in theory and followed it for a while, came across some cool stuff thanks to it (and credit to Maria Popova for her work). But it began to feel like a closed loop. Overdone tweeting aside, if compiling a book of quotables from all the latest paperback Jonah Lehrers is a 'singular vision and narrative', it's ultimately a bit of a narrow one. There's a whole internet out there and I think the publishing industry is pretty good at curating itself. If it were a museum, it's a bit like having the curator take you around the gift shop.

That said, some of the others pushing this curation thing--some of the writers featured by the likes of Brain Pickings--are just as responsible for pushing themselves into this loop. There are a few names I'm really sick of hearing about.

Oh yeah, and I'll also throw in a complaint about the oddly irritating use of the word 'interestingness'. Mm, interestingness, mnyumnyumnyumnyum.

Sarah said...

I liked this. It's an issue I've never thought about at all before, but made my brain yearn to contemplate it further.

Also, your rant about shortened urls made me laugh out loud. They've never bothered me, but I totally see your point. Thanks for making me smile.

amelia chesley said...

yay for further contemplations. if that's all my blog ever gets anyone to do.... actually that's probably pretty significant. I don't know that my blog has any other agenda.

word abuse could be a whole different post. the closed loop idea is a good thing to mention, yes. cryptic and deceptive linking to cats reminds me of this website where you can transform your url into something really suspicious-looking if you want. I think that is bizarre. but it exists.