Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Curator and the Docent

Walking around a vast museum can be interesting and, sometimes serendipitous, but often it is an incomplete experience. Items are organized in specific groups yet not always in a manner that encourages exploration of the most important items. Presented with a gallery full of amphorae, it can be difficult to recognize the single important item while on your own and without a guide. Surfing the web for information and knowledge can offer a similar experience: Access and proximity is no guarantee you will happen on relevance. 

Museums and libraries are good proxies for the concept of “curation,” which we’re hearing a lot about at the moment. Private equity (for one) has found its next buzz word and funding vultures are lacing their presentations with references to ‘curation’ in an effort to gain financial support for their new business ideas. But curation is an old concept: Television networks, newspapers, magazines, journals and other media have all practiced a form of content curation for hundreds of years. We’ve just recently latched onto the idea of curation as though it were something new. 

The need for curation in the old media world wasn’t as obvious as in the internet world because, on the web, ‘everything carries the same weight’ and the average user has difficulty discerning good content from bad. Indeed, as content on the web exploded over the past fifteen years, users accepted the “good enough” concept – free content was plentiful – and were content to ‘satisfice’ either knowingly or obliviously. User behavior and expectations are changing and investors are now chasing businesses that profess to actively curate content and communities of interest. In recent years content curation has emerged out of the wild, wild, west of ‘mere’ content. Sites such as The Huffington Post, Red State and Politico all represent new attempts to build audiences around curated content. While they appear to be successful, at the same time there are other sites (such as Associated Content and Demand Media) contributing to the morass of filler content that can plague the web users’ experience. 

The buzz word ‘curation’ does carry with it some logic: As the sheer amount of information and content grows, consumers seek help parsing the good from the bad. And that’s where curation comes in. The amount of content available to consumers – much of it free of charge, but scattered across thousands of websites – is growing exponentially every day. At the same time, consumers are increasingly doing independent research and attempting on their own to source important information to support their increasingly complicated lives. Questions or information relating to healthcare, finances, education and leisure activities represent a small sample of the range of topics on which consumers look for accuracy and relevance, yet encounter an immense sea of specious or outdated content. 

In many ways, the web - in its entirety - is the new dictionary, directory or reference encyclopedia, but users with specific interests are increasingly beginning to understand they need to spend as much time validating what they find as they do consuming their research. In the old days, it was as simple as pulling the volume off the shelf and, while the web offers a depth and accuracy of content that far outstrips any from the old days, finding content of similar veracity can be a challenge. 

For the past two years, I was working on a project with Louis Borders at Mywire.com in an attempt to build a curated news and information service we called Week’sBest. For a variety of reasons we put the project on hold in February, but the concept was simple: Identify experts that can curate content on a range of specific topics and build a community of interested subscribers around the content. Our model was to find expert ‘content producers’ who retain unique knowledge and understanding of a specific topic and would filter content from across the web specific to their topic of expertise. Mywire.com built a unique editorial tool to make this process almost routine by pre-selecting topic-specific content from both brand name sources and from across the web. Our experts - the content producers – logged on each day and selected from this pre-sorted list only those items they considered the best content. 

Consumers interested in each of these topics subscribe to a free weekly email digest of the material selected. Our revenue model was based on turning a subset of our free email subscribers into paid subscribers who would gain access to high-quality content – such as content from Oxford University Press. While we were unable to execute as we expected, we did gain validation of our concept from both the publishing and the private equity community. 

Publishers, who we were chasing to be our ‘content experts’ liked that there was a low cost of entry for their participation and liked the editorial platform we had invested in. The equity community liked the ‘curation’ model, the people involved in the project and the investment that Mywire had made in the platform. However, we suffered the ‘prove it’ syndrome. Both publishers and equity partners wanted to see the model work before they committed and we ran out of time and resources. Mywire.com continues to invest in other curation type models. I remain convinced that applying technology to the selection of useful, valid and appropriate content is only part of the solution. 

At Mywire, we used a text mining tool as part of the editorial process and on simple news items – which are increasingly generic – placing content items into subject/topic groupings was relatively easy. The process isn’t perfect and requires frequent ‘fine tuning’ but while the tools are improving, human intervention is still required. Earlier this month we learned that even Google was applying some human filtering to their news site. There is a real debate whether consumers will pay for real expertise and knowledge: I believe they will, just as they paid for specialist magazines, journals, cable channels and similar media in the analog centuries. 

The atomization of content has complicated matters in that it has taken the proverbial covers off the print limitation of the traditional magazine. While a reader or subscriber will buy into the expertise of ‘Glamour’ or ‘Men’s Health,’ they now expect all important and relevant content and not just the content prepared by the magazine’s writers. After all, there is a low hurdle in the user’s ability to search for content on their own and it is silly to ignore this ability. Acting as a ‘content producer,’ the editors of ‘Glamour’ should be able to provide their paying subscribers with a collective representation of all content that’s important and relevant to their readers even if the content is produced by Glamour’s competitors. This is an important service and doesn’t limit the ability of Glamour to produce their own content; rather, it enhances it because they are able to view in detail the interests of their subscribers and produce applicable content to match. 

In the above example, generic news is never going to be the basis for paid subscriptions. For example, the news that suntan lotion causes skin cancer is a hyped news story. In the Glamour example, this news story would always remain in the free section of their site; however, available to subscribers would be a curated selection of in-depth content including reference material, added to over time, with commentary and discussion from their ‘expert’ editors and advisors about the real issue of sun protection products. 

With a brand such as Glamour, the number of expert curated topics made available to subscribers could easily exceed fifty and over time would be likely to grow. Strongly associated with this approach would be the development of communities around each topic, leading in turn to additional business opportunities such as ad programs, events and special publishing programs. The interest of consumers across a wide variety of subjects and topics continues unabated and the internet has only facilitated that interest, although our expectations have been reduced or marginalized due to undifferentiated content. 

The consumer is increasingly smarter about the content they consume and they also continue to impress with their ability to seek out and absorb what, in the analog world, was considered too “advanced” for their understanding. There was always an arbitrary wall between “professional or academic” content and consumer content: Increasingly, consumers are making it clear that they want to make the decision themselves whether particular content is or is not too advanced for their comprehension or enjoyment. 

Recently, as I wandered around a museum with overwhelming breadth and depth of content, I was lucky to be guided in my travels by a professional. When she introduced herself to me, she used the term ‘docent’ to describe her function. A docent is a ‘knowledgeable guide’ and the function seems to me to perfectly complement the process of curation. In an online world, where more and more content appears to “carry the same weight,” we will look to and pay for the combination of curator and docent – sometimes the same person or entity – who can organize and manage a range of content and also engage with the user so they gain insight and meaning from the material. 

At Mywire.com, we intentionally approached branded media companies because they were recognized as experts in their segments. These are the companies which should be able to build revenue models around the curation of content to offer subscribers a materially different experience than simply performing a Google search query delivering up generic news and semi-relevant content.


Eric said...

I've struggled with the idea of people wanting curation, but I feel better about the docentage (word?). When I think of how I consume media, I realize that I do rely on selectors or guides, but not the sort that would present themselves as "curators". "Fake News Anchor" more like.

Mike Shatzkin said...

Good and thoughtful post, as usual, Michael. Perhaps one way of saying what I think we agree on is that "aggregation" can be done by automation much better than "curation" can.

I was glad to see you say that curation is becoming fashionable in high-powered circles. I wrote this post about Aggregation and Curation last September. Maybe I started the trend.