On Curation and Curators: Skills vs. Roles

Jared Spool

June 22nd, 2010

On the Content Strategy Mailing List there’s been a discussion about using the term curation. Amy Thibodeau asked if people were comfortable using it, and several folks mentioned it was working well to communicate what they were trying to accomplish with their content strategy.

Amy responded to people’s enthusiasm with this interesting point:

“For me there’s also a difference between the act of curation (pulling disparate ideas together, making meaning and creating opportunities for experience) and being a Curator (capital ‘C’).”

I agree with Amy completely about the difference between curation and curators. However, this isn’t a unique pairing.

Amy was commenting on the difference between the skills and the roles. What we’ve found is that you have to separate the two, then, if you want to create great user experiences, ditch the roles and focus on the skills.

Amy continued:

“In my experience in museums, curators (at large institutions) tend to wear one hat and they are often seen as arbitrators of culture and taste and, with a few exceptions, slightly out of touch with the average gallery visitor. […] I love museums and think the curatorial role is crucially important; but it tends to happen in a bit of an ivory tower and is driven by the academic interests of the person filling the role, which may not necessarily be what the community wants or needs.”

Because of her museum background, Amy has obviously had issues with people in the role of curator. But that doesn’t mean curation can’t work. You shouldn’t blame DVD players for bad Jim Carrey movies, I always say.

The focus on roles happen when we’ve got a severely uneven distribution of skills across the organization. When this happens, we find the small group who have the skills necessary to accomplish something and we appoint them with the roles. Others, who have different skills, get appointed with other roles. The thinking behind this age-old approach is that if the person with the role can apply their rich skills to the problem, they’ll move the work forward.

But anyone who has been watching the World Cup this week has seen one thing: vuvuzelas are annoying as hell. Ok, that’s true, but there’s a second thing: if the ball comes your way, you kick it. You don’t say, it’s not my job to kick it, so I’m going to wait until my team mate with that role gets here.

To do this well, everyone on the team has to have basic skills. And to be in the World Cup, those “basic skills” have to be at the top level.

So, when we’re talking about a content strategy effort, there’s another approach that’s emerging from the organizations that are doing the best: everyone on the team has to have World Cup-class basic skills. They all have to know what it’s about and how to deal with the ball when it comes their way.

In terms of curation, you can’t have a single curator who going to do a crappy job, playing to internal politics, and focusing on their own goals instead of the users or the organizations. Instead, the entire team, under the auspices of good, focused leadership, curates the content. They work as a team.

To this end, if content strategy is going to succeed, the community needs to know how they’ll get every team members skills dialed up to world-class levels. Once they do that, they’ll see a world of difference.

No ivory tower or self-serving academic interests here. This is the real world, baby.

5 Responses to “On Curation and Curators: Skills vs. Roles”

  1. Amy Thibodeau Says:

    Thanks for the post and the mention Jared!

    Further to what you’ve included here, the reason I struggle with the term in a web context is that to me it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. My point about museum curators is that their role isn’t to be completely visitor/user focused; in non-commercial museum settings, I’ve yet to meet a curator who creates exhibitions primarily based on what visitors think they want to see. They follow threads and put together exhibitions for a variety of reasons such as to provoke and question culture, history, the status quo, what have you. To be clear, I think that the role of the museum curator should be fairly academic and generally, they should leave the marketing and visitor services roles to other people who are better suited to them. So I don’t so much have issues with the role, so much as I understand its limitations.

    I like the idea of language evolving and I have no problem with a word such as curation being appropriated outside of the museum community but I can’t help but feel like it’s been rendered a bit meaningless by its over-application. For example, I belong to an online community called Pinterest, which is actually a very nifty little web app. Every time I create a new board or “pin” a new image to the site, it says “This board curated by Amy Thibodeau.” In this context, I am just Googling, finding images I like and then grouping them together on a visual board – surely there’s more to curation than that? This happens a lot with Tumblr too. Does reblogging really constitute curation? I don’t think it does, though many sites would disagree and use the word to describe what they are doing.

    Although I haven’t entirely made a decision about curation/curator in the context of the web, if I had to sum up my biggest issue it’s that it doesn’t mean much; it’s more about title and less about ‘doing’. This isn’t true in the museum world because of decades of use and the credentials associated with the position. In the web, it’s slapped onto so many things that it loses its meaning. And any time this happens my worry is that clients will be confused. In content strategy, words matter. They matter a lot.

  2. Jared Spool Says:

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks for replying to my post.

    I completely get where you’re coming from. Words do matter and the potential for confusion is great.

    I started in the computer industry at a time when the world Hacker was a good thing. It was a badge of honor amongst many programmers. Today, the word is almost always sinister, referring to people who like to destroy more than create.

    But what’s interesting is that the word itself didn’t change. It was the behaviors of the people labeled with the word that changed.

    I think the same is true for curation. If we want it to mean something that is about doing, then that’s how we use it. The more people who use it that way, and use it consistently, the more the world will associate the word with those behaviors.

    So, I think we’re at a good point here. We can commandeer the word and start using it for our own nefarious purposes—to make the world of content a better place.

  3. Richard Ravin Says:

    I’ve been following the discussion on the CS group. I’m against using ‘curation’ for a few reasons, the most important being its derivation from the world of fine art. It feels like a reach to use it in the work-a-day universe of corporate websites, e-commerce sites, blogs about kitty-cats, whatever we are hired to develop. Yes we assemble and organize content for coherent use, but so does the guy who runs a deli counter. He has to decide about signage, what to put on special, and whether the pastrami goes next to the liverwurst or corned beef. It’s not curation.

    Second, using ‘curation’ forces our audience to make a leap from what they know of the word to a new context. I’m not sure we can ‘commandeer’ the word as you suggest, Jared, and get traction. Aren’t we supposed to be making things easy for users, using terms they already understand, etc.? I don’t want to have to over-explain a word to clients. It feels like work.

    Last, using ‘curation’ as many think we should, smacks of insecurity to me — looking for a high-toned expression to add luster to the sometimes ignored or denigrated role of the content strategist. I’m content to think of myself as the deli guy.

  4. Ahava Leibtag Says:

    Jared, I’ve been mentioning your idea about different team members having to wear different hats everywhere. We talked about it during Kristina’s afternoon talk at Chicago Web Content 2010 and also at the Content Strategy Meetup last night in D.C. There seems to be a real push/pull between IA’s, Content Strategists and User Experience designers to figure out who’s the boss. Kristina pointed out that there is no way she could create the IA for a 2,000 page site. However, I do think most writers and content strategists could look at that same 2,000 page site and give our 2 cents as a writer…in terms of labelling and organization of content.
    At the end of the day, we all need to know something about everything and everything about something. All creative efforts need collaboration and respect for how a team comes together.

  5. AJ Kohn Says:

    I’m in marketing, and I’ve done a fair bit of product as well so UI/X/E is an interesting area.

    In this instance the curator should be the Subject Matter Expert (SME). What it sounds like is that the SME has lost touch, they’re no longer a SME. Perhaps you could argue that a SME doesn’t work to enhance the user experience but I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive, in fact I’d say that’s the job of a good SME.

    So, while the soccer analogy is nice, I’d take it further. Only one person gets to touch the ball with their hands. Right? And you surely have players you most want to kick that shot, or to be the one to take a penalty kick. A curator (SME) can still be valuable.

    Not everyone can be skilled at curation. Should you have more than one person who can do it? Sure. Should that person take pointers from the SME (the captain, the on-field coach)? Yes. It can be a team, but I still believe it should stem from a point of judgement. That doesn’t mean a dictatorship, but there is an arbiter.

    When I read something like this I worry that we’re marginalizing SMEs. That suddenly everyone can be a SME! (“I read something on the Internet today and so I think we should …”) Perhaps I’m over-reacting but I still want people who are great at just a few things, rather then people who are okay at a lot of things.

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