Insights and learnings after 10 years as a curator

After soon about 10 years as freelance curator (first part time, now basically full time for various projects) with focus on written content, I am going to share some insights and learnings.

For those not familiar with the term “curation”: I would define it as the process of systematically selecting and recommending relevant information or creative work generated by others.

In this piece I am focusing on curation of text (news, analyses, essays, commentary, longform journalism, specialized information), but of course curation isn’t limited to one media form.

Synergies & marginal costs
“Synergies” might sound like boring corporate speak, but as a freelance curator, synergies are your biggest ally. As long as the topics that you have to keep an eye on for different curation projects don’t expand too much, an additional output product does only add a marginal amount of additional time required for monitoring. You are already reading most of the things anyway for your other project(s). If you, for example, spend 2-3 hours a day reading tech and startup news for one daily newsletter, producing another curated output product related to tech and startups (maybe about a specific niche within tech/startups) won’t require additional 2-3 hours of daily reading. In other words, producing only one output product comes with the highest costs in required production time/product. With each additional output product (within the same sphere of topics), the marginal costs of producing it decrease.

Cognitive load
BUT: Even if you only have to expand your monitoring/reading time by maybe 30 minutes for an additional output product, there is cognitive load (= the required effort not to miss something which would be suitable for curation) involved with adjusting your monitoring habits and paying attention to a new sub topic or keyword. It usually takes a few days for me to get my mind used to the additional focus. After that period, the new monitoring criteria becomes internalized and fairly automatic, meaning that when an article about the topic appears in front of my eyes, my brain catches it right away without me having to deliberately make that decision.

Still, despite this automatism, with an increasing number of curated output products, the cognitive load grows. Therefore, while the marginal costs measured in production time decrease, the mental costs increase. And there certainly is a limit. My personal record was monitoring for about 5-6 different curated products during the same day. I could literally feel my brain and attention trying to divide itself into multiple “personalities”, one keeping an eye on this type of news, another one on news from that country, and so on.

80:20 principle
As in many (or all?) aspects of life, the 80:20 principle applies: With only 20 % of time you can find 80 % of the relevant information/”must reads”, but beyond that, you could literally spend hours to make your curated product perfect by digging up a few real highlights, less known sources and pieces that others haven’t shared yet. In my opinion, a good curated product is a mix of the most relevant and most important information for the specific field, with a few interspersed “rare” items and unexpected items that provide readers with the opportunity of serendipity.

If you want to be a good curator, you have to put yourself into your audience’s shoes and imagine what it is they might find relevant or interesting to read. Since your primary goal is not to promote your own work besides the package of curated content itself, this – in my view – sets curators apart from those who create original information/content. As a curator, while you of course want an audience for the curated product, the different “atoms” it is made of are largely based on what you think your audience will like, out of an infinite pool of available content and information pieces. This fact has led me to muse about whether as a curator, you need to be particularly good at empathy, or whether curating for a long time will improve your ability to emphasize. But I have no data or factual evidence for this, and it is possible that thinking about what someone else might find interesting isn’t the same as being sensitive to their emotions.

Passion for learning and reading
If you, like me, love reading and learning, then having the chance to curate for a living is a huge privilege. In fact, it’s probably not possible to be a professional curator of written online content if you don’t enjoy reading and learning.

Curator’s Curse
The downside of being an avid and enthusiastic curator, of being constantly plugged into the information stream and of assuming to know what others might find interesting, is that there is a risk of oversharing on private channels, such as messenger groups, email, Slack etc. I call it the Curator’s Curse: The inability to stop curating even when you should. Connected to this is also the inability to understand that someone you know might not be as passionate about reading some article as you are (so much about empathy…). So far it hasn’t cost me any friendships, as far as I am aware of, but sometimes I get a bit tired of my own oversharing habit :)

Dealing with the noise
Worse than the Curator’s Curse and the only real downside of being a professional curator is that you have to battle your way through a lot of noise, bullshit content, low quality “journalism” and clickbait on a daily basis. It’s too easy to get upset about something one reads and then to have your mind ruminating about it. I try to apply tactics such as Buddhism-inspired non-judgement and Stoic acceptance while scanning news and opinion pieces, but often I fail. On the other hand, the partly sorry state of online media and online discourse is one reason why some people appreciate human curators who dig through the noise, so I am not complaining.

RSS is still my favorite way to keep up with what many hundreds of publishers’ and blogs produce daily. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be able to do my job. It’s just an amazing simple little technology.

That’s about it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. And before you leave, I suggest you to sign up for weekly, my personal weekly email with reading recommendations, mostly about what’s going on in the digital world.

A special thanks for making my work as curator possible throughout the years to Peter Hogenkamp, Thomas Mauch, Carla Hustedt, Konrad Lischka and Andreas Von Gunten.

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