Disrecognized Space

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Curation: An essential online performative skill

As the amount of digital information in the world grows, curation of this data becomes increasingly necessary. Digital curation has democratized a previously professional skill, having become a task all online users undertake, and which also forms a central part of identity performance online. While automatic tools are available to assist in this process human intervention is necessary in order to give meaning to curating disparate objects. Lacking awareness of this, machine curation could theoretically limit a person’s online experience and expression. Recognition of curation’s necessity, a reflexive understanding of how it embodies identity across sites and time, and its interactions with digital ecosystems has become an essential online skill in order to create nuanced and critical online selves.

In a digital world the amount of available information grows at a confounding speed. Shirky (2008) comments that information overload has existed since at least the invention of the printing press: the problem of the online world is not the explosion of information, but one of having effective filters. This, however, ignores to an extent the fundamentally different nature of the internet: not only has information increased to a massive extent (Berners-Lee (2014) recently noted websites have passed the one billion mark), but all of it is potentially available at once. Shirky (2014) has, however, elsewhere acknowledged the internet’s blurring of previous cultural rules and the different nature of internet information. This is an order of magnitude different from pre-internet information overload. It is not just a question of too many books to read since digital information covers the whole spectrum of human expression: images, texts, video, music and data (Ray, 2009, p. 358). Shirky (2008) argues that we now need new filters along with new social norms to effectively engage with this digital world. Another word for these filters is curation.

Curation increases the understanding of objects and brings order to information overload. Rosenbaum (2011, p. 2) observes that the result of good curation is “context, meaning and knowledge” leading to a “special aura of knowledge and experience”. Curation is thus an activity that places objects into a meaningful relationship to an audience. Without this “aura” curation devolves into an aggregation without context (Rosenbaum, 2011, p, 4). Curation is the process of shaping knowledge about objects, rather than simply aggregating the objects themselves (Rotman, Procita, Hansen, Parr and Preece, 2012, p. 1093). Curation is essential to bring meaning to digital objects dispersed through the internet.

Curation does not, however, occur in isolation, but within the structures of the internet. Nardi and O’Day (1999, para. 25) conceptualise these structures as information ecologies, localized collections of relationships between people, technological tools, and how those tools are used. They identify a number of factors distinguishing information ecologies: they are local, diverse systems; they are subject to constraints and possibilities and thus ‘evolve’; and they contain keystone species, particularly mediators between systems who are technologically skilled. While their claim that communities (as opposed to ecologies) are homogenous is arguable, the systems concept does bring to the fore the need to recognize the multiconnected relationships that make up ‘local’ internets and their connections to other such ecologies and, especially, the need for skilled human mediators to keep such systems alive and functioning. Their analogy tends towards Actor Network Theory, though their privileging of humans as a ‘keystone species’ can be seen as limiting considering the variety of nodes in the network. Day (2012, p. 62) stresses that both curation and cyberinfrastructure are codependently linked, while Willson (2014, p. 226) observes that though decisions can be delegated to technology, this has political implications. Curation thus operates within the constraints and affordances of information ecologies and cyberinfrastructures when bringing meaning to collections.

Digital curation as a concept is relatively new, and researchers provide varying descriptions of it in different contexts – curating an online museum site is different from curating a social media presence. Much of the literature deals with a straight transfer of traditional institutional curation to an online format, rather than considering the different nature of digital curation. Ray (2012, pp. 604-605) comments that the meaning of curation has been altered by digital media, encompassing traditional curation as well as sites such as Pinterest. She stresses, however, the human role of curation. Most definitions emphasise that digital curation is not just collecting or displaying, but in some way adds value or meaning, often as a process over time (Madrid, 2013, p. 151), something Ray (2099, p. 360) also describes in her definition of digital curation as ongoing, from the creation of an object to a possible future use. This curatorial process inevitably expresses the curator’s identity.

Online curation requires specific skills, and operates differently from institutional curation. Thibodeau (quoted in Day, 2007, p. 107) gives a list of competencies for digital curation as a professional role which recognizes applying new technology to digital sources subject to change over time. Rheingold (2012, pp. 129-130) offers two other lists of curatorial skills: both providing different ways of considering how curators reorder information, add value through methods such as comments or tagging, and disseminate this new information. Indeed, Rheingold (2012, p. 133) sees tagging as a fundamental function for organizing knowledge online. Tagging, and other added metadata, creates an ‘enhanced copy’, increasing the value of the digital object (Marshall, 2011, p. 107). In a digital world, objects can also easily be arranged in multiple categories (Feinberg, 2011, p. 119). Physical objects can only be stored in one location but, as Bush (1996, p. 43) remarked in 1945, the human mind works by associations, it creates links and trails. Digital curation realizes Bush’s vision, allowing multiple co-existing ‘trails’ (or stories) to be laid across digital objects.

Curation is inextricably linked to identity: what is emphasized, what is ignored, what constraints are placed on it, what order it is given, all function as means of performing identity constructions. As Durrant, Frohlich, Sellen and Lyons (2009, p. 1011) note in the context of family photographs, curation mediates self-expression. What we curate, and what we choose to display of this curation, provides knowledge about ourselves, to make us more secure about who we are (Cox, 2009, p. 106). Curation online cannot be performed without also performing identity.

Identity is significant because, in a networked world, curation is no longer a privileged function, but has become democratized (Rosenbaum, 2011, p. 17). Power has shifted from professional editors or librarians: we are all curators online (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 2). Online curation is also, increasingly, collaborative (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 24). Mihailidis and Cohen (2013, p. 5) describe curation as a way to analytically make metanarrational stories from the internet that can be reflective as well as shared. Curation, they state, is thus a core digital competency. Curation can also engender a sense of responsibility in the story creator by crafting a coherent narrative (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 28). These are all ways of expressing identity in digital formats. In a similar manner, Jacobson (2012, p. 2) defines curation as a creative act. Rather than working with scarce objects (which museum curators might) digital curators have a wealth of resources. Online curation is a form of identity creation, a public display, that draws together both self-created objects (such as photographs) and those created by others. Identities are integrated into digital curation.

Digital curation forms a major basis of identity expression. Online curation mediates experiences (including the experience of the self) (Quaan-Haase and Martin, 2013, p. 529). This occurs equally whether curation is performed by a machine or a human (or a human/machine synthesis). Curation (especially, but not only, machine curation) can, however, limit identities online by restricting information. Sutton (2014) alone lists forty-seven curation tools, ranging from online spaces to gather material together, to sites that sort and push information automatically, and whose methods are more opaque. Filtering can be an active seeking of information, or a passive reception of information (Willson, 2014, p. 222). Digital natives, paradoxically, may be at home with new technology but often remain unaware of the role and skills of digital curation (Yakel, Conway, Hedstrom and Wallace, 2011, p. 23). This raises questions of what happens when curation is an automatic or neglected process.

Allowing machines to curate for us is easy, but relinquishes power and control Helmond (2010, p. 5) questions what it means to allow Google or other machine algorithms to shape the audience. Google results are personalised to the user, so that two users searching for the same information can get different results, while Facebook similarly adjusts what different users see (Bozdag, 2013, p. 211). Storify privileges ‘verified’ sources in its search results (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 29). Such methods inherently contain the biases of the original human creators of the algorithms, operating through website code (Bozdag, 2013, p. 217), potentially creating a lack of information diversity (Bozdag, 2013, p. 220). Care is required in developing such algorithms if they are not to be limiting (Dandekar, Goel and Lee, 2013, pp. 5795-5796). If the software feeds back what the searcher has consumed from previously restricted offerings this can become self-reinforcing (Helmond, 2010, p. 12). Identity is mediated through this invisible code especially when we remain unaware of it (Helmond, 2010, p. 15). Automatic curation is easy, but can apply ‘blinders’ to what we see (Gibney, 2014, p. 130). Relying solely on algorithms and code thus shifts power to those who hold our data, making us more passive in what we see online (Pariser, 2011, p. 6). New methods of curating digital information come with their own limitations and restrictions which need to be negotiated (Beaulieu, De Rijcke and Van Heur, 2013, p.50). Rather than fully expressing identity, automatic curation can potentially lead to algorithms determining our identities for us. Such delegation makes the audience passive consumers rather than active shapers of information.

Some critics have raised the issue of ‘echo chambers’ as a growing concern onine. While relying on algorithms relinquishes control, even with a human presence the multiple articulations afforded by online curation can, as Danzico (2010, p. 18) cautions, invisibly exclude any unwanted news or information that might challenge the audience’s preconceptions. There are many sites that allow users to collect information that reflects their interests (and, by implication, represent a portrayal of their identities) but this information may or may not be accurate or truthful (Mihailidis and Cohen, 2013, p. 4). The effect of creating such ‘echo chambers’ may be exaggerated, however. Garrett (2009, p. 279) finds that, while people use the internet to reinforce political views, they also engage with challenging information as well, even if only to reinforce their views. Nonetheless, it is a problem that needs recognition in order to avoid it.

Some sites automate the processes of curation while allowing more active choice from the user in making selections, striking a compromise between passive and active curation. Sites such as Storify allow the gathering of objects into personal stories – narratives that reflect the creators (Carrigan, 2012, p. 1). As noted above, however, these sites can still contain implicit, unstated biases even when seeming more open. The nature of the site(s) chosen to host a user’s curation(s) also changes the environment in which it is displayed, through such factors as layout, personalization, social norms, and links to other users (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2011, pp. 223-224). Feinberg (2011, p. 123) urges us to relish this opportunity to utilize different organizational systems than the ones we might otherwise unthinkingly favour. Rather than letting machines alone do the curating, users can create more nuanced selves by actively engaging with their curatorial activities.

Digital curation is a relatively new, and still fluid, concept. It is nonetheless clear that it is a function that everyone online performs whether they are aware of it or not. Curation has transformed from a specialized skill of a few professionals, to a fundamental way we organize and display information online and, by implication, display ourselves. This performative identity function of curation is deeply embedded in our cybernavigations and it is therefore important that users are conscious of this aspect, and develop their curatorial skills so that they become aware of how they simultaneously express and filter their identities online, as well as adding meaning and value to the objects they curate. An essential part of this performative act is negotiating how different tools and sites, and the digital ecosystems they function within, can enhance or limit curatorial possibilities. Such negotiation maximizes opportunities to create nuanced, critical online identities that expand online presences rather than limit them.

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