There’s a lot to be said on both sides of curation. Matt Langer writes thoughtfully on the meta-self-puffery of the act on Gizmodo,
The self-described “curator” of the modern day web seeks special recognition for what is nothing more than a pattern of behavior that distinguishes an individual from those with uncurious, idle minds. Rather than issuing demerits on the latter we’re instead being invited—no! implored, rather, via an “actionable code of ethics”—to heap praise upon the former.
Mr. Langer was responding to the work of Maria Popova, who recently described the power of curation to Mother Jones.
But even before I knew what that was, I always believed that creativity is just, sort of, our ability to take these interesting pieces of stuff that we carry and accumulate over the course of our lives—knowledge and insight and inspiration and other work and other skills—and then recombine them into new things. That’s how innovation happens, and that’s how ideas are born.
I entirely agree with Ms. Popova. Combinatorial intelligence is great. I’ve always thought, for instance, of Borges, Joyce, and Pynchon as my favorite writers — and precisely because they brought to bear so much historico-allusive firepower onto grand ideas and beautiful prose.
What I fail to understand is how a Curator’s Code follows from Ms. Popova’s (fairly obvious) stance. She gives her reasoning for it on her website:
The Curator’s Code is an effort to keep this whimsical rabbit hole open by honoring discovery through an actionable code of ethics
But I’d reply that the history of ideas is the history of stealing ideas. The notion of ethics in hyperlinking (let alone “actionable” ethics — are you going to SOPA me if I don’t give you a via?) seems fairly mystifying. Especially as Google and the Internet Archive have cached and preserved much of the internet. You can tell when someone stole something, and so can all your followers. It’s like, a-doy, you did not discover Keyboard Cat (or whatever important idea-lineage it is you’re trying to preserve).
But there’s a worse thing about this all than intellectual dishonesty, which, again, Mr. Langer spiritedly takes to task in the above-linked article. (Full-disclosure: I found it via a Google search for “langer curation”; it originally appeared on my Tumblr dash via… damn I forgot. Please, Ms. Popova, do not take ethical action against me.) Ahem.
The worse thing about this curator culture bullshit we’ve been wading through since Kottke, et al. is the belief that adding a via or reblog actually means something.
As in, for instance, I’m a pretty smart guy. I read a lot, a hundred or so pages a day of books/newspapers/articles. And still, my Instapaper has, I don’t know, more than two thousand articles unread. My RSS, which had heretofore been down to a hundred some odd items is back to over seven hundred. I’m overflowing with things directed at me and things I’m tweeting out and directing at other people.
This all has served absolutely no purpose!
Sure, when Passion of the Weiss posts a 10 Hottest Rappers list that largely corresponds to my own mental 10 Hottest Rappers list, I tweet it out from hubris or pride. Look at me: I have good taste because so do these people. Same with incriminating Klosterman quotes and political “takes” that I either love or hate. This doesn’t serve a purpose, though. What does it do? Will my tweet about Kendrick Lamar make you think, like me, that he’s the best fucking rapper alive? Probably not unless you already did.
At best, curating lets ideas spread. At worst, it makes you think you had a powerful part of their genesis.
What I’m talking about is the innumerable reblogs without comment or reblogs with “This” stitched to the bottom. “This” is the most useless commentary ever invented. “So much this.” I don’t see the point. I personally do reblog things with little or not comment — usually when I’m trying to highlight a writer I like. Sometimes I’m lazy, ok. But simply saying “this” or reblogging long swathes of text to “make a point” is so pointless.
For instance, all this KONY bullshit. All this Limbaugh bullshit. All this Breitbart bullshit. Reblogging stuff is not doing anything. Writing a few thousand words eviscerating a scumbag, now that is doing something! But generally, no. Your reblog doesn’t matter.
Now, you might say there’s something of a paradox here. (Or you might say there’s someone of an asshole here.) Fair enough: things don’t get popular without “signal boosts” or people tweeting things, reblogging things, sharing them on Facebook. That’s true to an extent. Do I wish the shit I wrote got shared on Facebook, ever? Yeah, I guess I do. And it certainly feels good when someone reblogs you and says, “this”. But what I’d like even more is for the things I write to get people to set their laptops on fire and go out and start a war.
I think it is perfectly fine being a signal booster. I mean, sure, the world needs better cell reception. But sometimes it’s good to have things to say, too. And I know not everyone is a writer or photographer or videographer or whatever. There’s a pervasive myth that everyone is creative, but that’s not necessarily true — and that’s fine! And people should get to read and share what you want. I’m not saying you don’t get to do that. What I’m saying here, and I guess I’m also kind of just agreeing a bit more with Mr. Langer, is that reblogging something is not to be lauded; it’s just a normal thing. Actually sitting down and saying something is the thing to be lauded. Doing something is good.
I’ve sat on the sidelines for so many various, you know, ‘kerffuffles’. I’ve sat by and seen my online friends in feminism and social activism get trashed. I’ve seen my girlfriend has been constantly attacked, trashed, and told she’s worthless. Hardly any (none?) of the many, many people who had reblogged her with relish, none of them stepped up and wrote something about it. I’ve seen writers I respect, and many more I disrespect, reblog things my girlfriend has written while still being shitty people. I’ve seen about a million people reblog or quote this piece by Maura Johnston about how to write about female musicians — and then still be dicks about women.
I fucking hate the “this” culture. “This” is a passing fad. A synapse fired. Now what? You saw someone being racist on Tumblr, and reblogged a message of support. “This.” Now what? Call out racism, write shit about it, get mad. I feel like I live in a society made of anterograde amnesiacs. If the number of notes on feminist, people of color, queer activist posts actually reflected how people thought, we’d be living in a better world. But as I look around, I do not see this world. So I have to conclude that these massive note-magnets do not really accomplish much.
The curatorial mindset, which honestly is instilled in us all via Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and the whole friggin internet, is fine, good, yes. And it does totally accomplish things. But, and here’s my real point, sharing often fails to meet our ideals, but it provides the feeling or idea that maybe it did, and that is dangerous. It’s dangerous because a mere signal boost doesn’t always accomplish our goals. And to think so is to give up the fight without trying too hard.