Where Do Information Curators Come From?

by on Apr.05, 2012, under general

This evening I attended ‘Adapting Journalism to the Web’, a communications forum sponsored by the MIT Center for Civic Media, featuring NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Center director Ethan Zuckerman in a wide-ranging discussion about where / why journalism has been and where it is going.

Jay opened the forum in what was for me a fascinating fashion: by situating journalism in its historical social and technological contexts. Some of it was familiar (we had printing presses, and now we have the Internet) but much of it was new to me. For example, Jay spent a good deal of time discussing how early journalists in the West legitimated themselves by describing the first individuals to report on the proceedings of Parliament. Because not all of the public “out of doors” knew what was happening, early journalists had a very simple claim to authority: presence. “I was here. You were not. Let me tell you what happened.”

This dynamic was produced by the complex interaction of many legal and technological factor, but perhaps the most salient property was this: the means of information production were scarce. Cameras were scarce, notepads were scarce, presses were scarce, print was scarce, space was scarce.

But as Jay’s colleague Clay Shirky (among others) has observed, in the digital age the chief scarcity is not information anymore. The journalist can say “I was here”, but she can no longer say so exclusively; a thousand other people were there as well, holding up their cell phones and posting videos to YouTube. Indeed, the crux of the crisis in journalism is, as many have noted, this change from information scarcity to information abundance. It affects the profession of journalism – by which I mean, as we seem to have long meant, a particular profession performed through and associated with the media of newspapers and broadcast – at every level. But now there are people seeing and recording what only field reporters once could see and record. And, at the other end of the office hierarchy, there is no longer the same pressing physical scarcity driving editors: you don’t need to cut content for on the front page when your front page can be as large as you need it to be. In other words, what journalism has looked like was not only because of what journalists wanted it to be, but also because of the shape of the technological vessel into which it was poured. As Jay said, 3 broadcast channels wasn’t a thoughtful, intelligent, educated choice made to strike a precise balance: it was a historical accident, produced by a contemporary confluence of legal, technological, and economic factors. It shouldn’t be dismissed, but it also shouldn’t be idealized.

There was a consensus among Jay, Ethan, and I think much of the audience (certainly myself) that the most important scarcity nowadays is the scarcity of attention, and that there was an increasing trend towards (reliance upon?) information curators like Maria Brainpicker to help filter newly-abundant information. Or, to paraphrase Shirky: we’ve switched from “filter, then publish, to publish, then filter.”

To me this raises a very interesting question:

We know something about how the profession of journalism worked, by which I mean we know something about how it was legitimated and reproduced. It was both necessitated and legitimated by physical scarcity (as described by Jay), and it was reproduced by association with particular sorts of institutions and physical media, be they radio, television, the New York Times or the journalism classes Jay teaches at NYU.

What I don’t know – and I’m not sure if anyone knows – is how this new profession of information curators works.

How are these information curators trained, legitimated, reproduced? If a primitive journalist relied on “I was there, you were not” and physical media, in what ephemeral turf does a curator of information and attention stake her claim? Will accrediting institutions give rise to these curators? Will they instead be driven by modes of practice or power relations which are very different from those in traditional journalism? An interaction of the two? Something else entirely?

In his answer to my question Jay made a very good point, which is to study those who are already successful curators to see what they do. I think this is the right way to go. Every day, I read everything posted by TalkingPointsMemo, BoingBoing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colossal, Barstool Boston, and a variety of other sites which I think are characterized by a curatorial dynamic more than anything else. But how did they become what they are? How did people come to trust them? Is it taste? Is it luck? Is it a method of audience relation? Will future information curators be people who have great subject matter expertise (we will all subscribe to THE authority on a field), or will they instead be people who can curate many conversations and translate the complexities into the vernacular for the rest of us (as Maggie Koerth-Baker does for BoingBoing?). Are the answers to any (or all) of these questions true for all people, or are they themselves specific to domains and their interpretive communities, and if so how?

I think this question is a bit more complex than the usual “how do I make a great video that will get a lot of views” or SEO stuff. It’s a matter of from where curatorial organizations derive (or how they produce) their own legitimacy. We kinda sorta know how journalists did it (“I’m there. You’re not.”) But what about the future?

If anyone has any interesting ideas – or knows of people who have already studied this question – I’d love to hear them. And I’ll post up a liveblog / video of the forum as it becomes available from Civic.

e: Liveblog up, courtesy of Matt Stempeck.

e2: Video and audio here.

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