The responsibilities of a curator

The Internet has led to an atomization of news. Instead of reading a specific newspaper each day and one or two magazines each week or month, an increasingly common behavior pattern among younger generations is a pick-and-choose approach. People read what they find interesting, no matter which source. The discovery of content happens mostly through social media. The publisher brands are moving into the background. Instead, friends and online contacts are representing the “seal of approval” for a specific piece of content. “If person X has recommended a text, video or podcast, I might want to check it out, because I like person X/know that person X has a similar taste, interests or worldview”.

I’ve just described the rise of the curator. In the digital context, curators are people who distribute content created by others. Nowadays most people with an interest in digital media are aware of the phenomenon. However, I argue that the majority of “regular” people, who act as curators on the big social networks and who do not follow the digital media industry’s discourse, are not aware of the implications of the curation trend. They are not aware that being a curator comes with duties and responsibilites.

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Curators are responsible for following basic ethical standards. If journalists write articles which intentionally present a skewed picture of a story, than these journalists are failing to live up to the ethical standards of their profession. If curators intentionally distribute a piece of content which they know or suspect to present a skewed or inaccurate picture of reality, the curators would fail to live up to the responsibility that they posses.

One problem is that the average curator on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere never has thought about the responsibility that comes with the capability to distribute and broadcast information. Another problem is that some people might disagree with the assumption that curation comes with any responsibility. They would claim that the content creator is responsible and that they can share freely anything they find online, without any moral or ethical constraints.

Arguing about that would probably not lead anywhere. However, emphasizing the responsibilities of curators is helpful whenever these very curators who do not acknowledge their own responsibilities as content distributors accuse others and specifically the mainstream media for intentionally not reporting the “truth”. This accusation has become common in the recent public debates of two countries that I follow the closest – Germany and Sweden, and probably elsewhere, too. Few seem to see the contradiction: People who complain the loudest about an allegedly manipulative press are curating an endless, utterly unbalanced stream consisting of exclusively one-sided accounts and news items. They fail to see that individually, and even more as part of a tightly connected network of other like-minded curators, they carry a similar weight and responsibility as if they would actively create professional content.

To me, social media curators who fail to offer a balanced view on the topics they frequently share about don’t look convincing when they expect 100 percent objectivity from others. They think that as “amateurs” they are exempt from the responsibilities of professional content creators. But considering how widespread and impactful the curation phenomenon has become (just look into your Facebook or Twitter feed), I think this assumption is based on very shaky ground.

Of course the millions of amateur curators out there won’t all of the sudden start to share content contradicting their opinions and ideologies, just to be balanced – although it would be awesome. But they might want to think about why they expect others to be completely objective and impartial when they themselves are not willing to stick to that rule.

For better or worse, objectivity is becoming extinct.

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  1. I believe it is very important to analyze this problem and raise awareness – even more so as I believe that the effect you describe is at least in part also responsible for the deterioration of mainstream media which desperately tries to make ends meat in the social media made attention economy.
    However, I also believe the plea to mere humans behaving differently is moot. It is simply not going to happen. Instead one should consider why curators do what they do, how things could be organized in a way to make them behave differently and what could be done on the end of the receiver, the people who follow curator’s links to improve the situation.
    Indeed I think the latter, the receiver, is as important as the curator. Humans know what to expect when people they know pretty well utter an opinion. We classify opinions we get in real life by what we know about the person we get the opinion from. Humans are good at that. It is good to build upon what people are good at.
    I believe it is technically possible to scale this mechanism. What we need for this is some kind of more elaborate rating system than the ability to “like” or do nothing. This is indeed already happening at large (e.g. on LinkedIn) but the respective information is distributed – scattered – hard to find, hard to interpret and practically inaccessible in the context where it is needed for this to work. But if in place, such a system would also feed back to the curators and – if arranged “correctly” – could also achieve the effect you desire.

    • I agree. I also deliberately did not frame the post as a plea to humans to behave differently during their own curation, but as a reminder that curators are in a weak position when requesting objectivity/balanced work from media outlets if they don’t follow these standards themselves.

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