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Curation contradictions

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I’ve written this as part of the week-long Bring Your Own Device For Learning open course. Today’s topic is about curating online resources, something I do using Diigo for online bookmarking, Zotero for reference-managing formal literature, Evernote, blogging, a news feed aggregator, and a bit of If This Then That for shunting stuff around different Web services.

There’s a lot about curation that perplexes me. Partly it’s to do with a prior idea I have of curation as a professional practice which requires great discernment, which in turn requires expertise. To put it another way, the less prior knowledge of a subject you have, the less able you are to choose well or organise coherently. I don’t think this aspect of curating can be something which improves much by practising curation itself, but by developing a more sophisticated view of the subject in the world.

For example, I now can usually find a bookmark again when I need it. For years this wasn’t the case, then at some stage it became the case. As my subject knowledge and general worldliness grew, I could describe things more precisely and express that in my personal tagging schema, which began to settle down. I also became more aware of the different kinds of mental rummaging I do when I’m trying to remember something, and began to tag differently – more considerately for myself in, say, six months’ time.

Another slightly worrying thing about curation is to do with a newer idea of curation as a focus – a throttling of the Web into a manageable trickle of stuff, followed by a process of integrating that stuff with other stuff. Of course we need to do this – if we’re too open-minded our brains fall out. So the outer circle of my curation contains the aggressive filters of a trusted network and trusted sources. Through that come the news feeds I follow which are inevitably a tiny proportion of the research and commentary available. I know that social network homophily – choosing sources similar or like-minded to oneself and neglected those which are different – is likely unless I take deliberate steps to disrupt this. But when I take these steps it can stop feeling like curation.  I suppose this is the difference between curating your daily ration of news, and curating sources to answer a question or complete a project – the latter often have intended outcomes which depend on committing to a settled point of view. This is where editorial processes, peer-review, neutrality, evidence and other scholarship loom large.

Finally, I can’t shake feeling turned off by the business models of lots of the web services I use to collect my bits of the web. I feel very sad that, with my level of technical acumen, I have to trade off usability against both openness, privacy, and even future opportunities. Eli Pariser, who coined the phrase ‘filter bubble’, is concerned about a tendency to ‘a bad theory of you on the Internet’, based on our clicks, friends and purchases. He describes how recommendation and search algorithms, being commercial, are weighted to serve people up a diet of stuff we like rather than less enjoyable stuff we ought to attend to. He points out that there’s no ‘Important’ button on Facebook, so the feel-good stuff gets buoyed up by attention while the uncomfortable stuff becomes proportionally easier to ignore. His solution is to throw in your own serendipity by going out of your way on the Web – searching, clicking, following and befriending where you have no interest. Again, this seems anti-curation.

And one last thing – which possibly makes curation a bad metaphor – is that unlike a gallery or museum, there’s no basement room or off-site warehouse on the Web. I don’t think I’m alone in almost never throwing things out.

So, these are some of the contradictions – and many people are negotiating them more than successfully. The BYOD4L crew are curating the Twitter activity (hashtag #BYOD4L and #BYOD4Lchat) and other contributions, so I’m off now to see it done right.

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