Welcome To The New Age Of Curation

nathistI’m guessing that a lot of you think that now – right now – is a golden age of creation. And in many ways, it is. It’s never been a better time to make art of all kinds, from video games – my own art of choice – through books to filmed entertainment and beyond.

Sure, the massive media disintermediation spawned by the Internet has spawned a golden age for creators, at least for touching audiences directly. But finding great, sometimes underappreciated art is the thing we consumers need the most help on right now – especially because there’s so much of it out there, and so much of it that can be easily accessed.

That’s why, in many ways, this is the ‘Age Of Curation’, not the age of creation. And here’s five reasons why:

1. What people value the most is their time. And many of us have ever less of it. Those dashed-off hours in between school or work and family demand a certain focus. We need to know what’s good – and not necessarily just popular – out there.

2. A few decades back, you might have one to five choices each for newspapers, radio stations, TV, or films. Now you have millions for each medium. All of your spare time could be taken up with arranging your collection, or working out what art you might want to consume – let alone getting on with enjoying it!

3. Once upon a time, your taste in art was – to a certain extent – shaped by your limited choices. Now you can go MUCH further down the rabbit hole with complete ease. For example, there’s a website purely about English-language versions of visual novel games. This – while actually fascinating – is a compilation of other sources in a niche so narrow that wider websites may not ever mention it.

4. An individual’s lens can only go so far into the minutiae before they fail to check out or appreciate the bigger picture. Having tried to manage 800+ RSS feeds, each dealing with a small but fascinating aspect of the video game biz, I can tell you – it’s massive information overload. And that’s just for one medium, and staying away from big, obvious stories/websites.

Get down too deep, and you’ve no idea what’s going on across the entire medium. And how the heck do you work out where to start? A big part of this new age of creation is that you have infinite choice, and no clear concept of where to start.

5. So what’s the fix? You need a filter. And I strongly believe that while algorithmical filters work, you need people to tell you about things you wouldn’t find that way. When I look at book suggestions on Amazon, or artist radio on Last.fm, they’re logical and basically useful – but they’re not a concatenated, cool-hunted melange that reaches out and touches your heart.

Some form of this filtration has been in shape for decades, largely in print form, of course. Music-wise, the New Musical Express in particular helped to define grunge and Britpop, and could genuinely be called tastemaking. Nowadays, we’ve got Pitchfork, and a plethora of other quietly influential wonders (I’m a particular fan of The Quietus.)

In the video game space, sites like Tiny Cartridge (for Nintendo formats), our own GameSetWatch (for alt.game oddness in general) and IndieGames (for independent games, methinks!), and the late lamented Offworld (watch this space for a Brandon Boyer-helmed spiritual sequel!) are designed to be just that – a way to find something unique. And further up the pageviews tree, even big sites like Kotaku have also amped up the cool-hunting to positive effect. (Heck, even our own Independent Games Festival is effectively curation, although of a much more time-honored type.)

The genuinely scary thing, however, is that ‘looking for the unexpected’ is not actually necessarily a good way to get heard over the clamor of the Internet. Rock papers like NME and Rolling Stone had a certain monopoly of voice that allowed them – after their rise – to be a little more avant or exploratory.

But on the Internet, growth through this tastemaking leadership takes exponentially longer and is a lot more hassle, talking Machiavellian-style. If you’re just looking for page views, most of the time you might as well publish the obvious news, quickly. Some of the greatest successes in the video game website space of the past few years, like, VG247, operate on the ‘all the news, fairly damn fast’ model – which is also perfectly valid.

And yet, it’s heartening to see that genuinely passionate, tastemaking journalism like that on RockPaperShotgun rewarded by a big audience in the game space. The ultimate vindication of this new age of curation is that reprint culture or pure bot intelligence can’t replace human-sourced recommendations, passions and suggestions.

[Having switched from creation to curation myself in my career, I often think there's a lot more to be said about the role of the curator. Would you be interested in hearing more? If so, I may do some interviews with abstruse curators on how they find and package information for the slavering public.]

7 thoughts on “Welcome To The New Age Of Curation

  1. Awesome article, Simon! As a curator who’s trained in the curation of art (and most of my professional and academic work has pertained to the curation of artists’ games), this whole idea is very exciting to me. And I think another important thing to note is that curation isn’t strictly about taste-making either–a huge part of it is becoming an interlocutor, someone who facilitates a discussion around content, as opposed to presenting content with a qualitative (and subjective) evaluation.

    In that regard, the democratization of curatorial tools (tumblr, twitter, all the ways we share content) is really exciting! It might usher in a new era wherein culture becomes more participatory…or it might not.

    Anyway, I do hope you continue on with this, Simon. Let me know if you ever want to talk more about this stuff!

  2. Here’s something that I’ve seen in our game numbers that fascinates me. Traditional methods of curation rarely have a meaningful direct impact on traffic numbers. Even the largest review or journalism sites create a temporary blip that quickly washes away. As audiences become more fragmented and the sheer flow of ‘stuff’ increases, the impact of each curator decreases.

    This may be a result of the free to play space where meaningful traffic is measured in hundreds of thousands of referrals. As free to play grows, this dynamic increases.

    What seems to mater are 1) uncomfortable relationships with king maker platforms 2) reach across many, many platforms and aggregators and 3) word of mouth.

    For the more open markets, the automated aggregators and word of mouth are of immense value. Automated aggregators tend to become commodities. One RSS feed of flash games is poorly differentiated vs another so it is unlikely that any one can exercise strong financial power over the smaller developer. Word of mouth is wonderful because it generally encourages a direct relationship between the developer and the player. In this scenario, your community is the driver of distribution, not curators.

    To riff off Ryan’s note on peasants, powerful curators are a sign of a closed market in which content creators are being abused in some manner. Something like Rolling Stone was predominantly an example of an extremely powerful music industry engaged in highly manipulative kingmaking activities. The distribution channels were constrained and the relationship between the musician and the audience was filtered through middlemen that took outrageous cuts of generated value.

    The game industry has gone down the path of king making. I’m not sure it is where we want to go again in the future. I’d love to see a landscape with more broadly available automated distribution, fewer king makers, deeper connection between content creators and customers and less powerful middlemen.

    take care,
    Danc.

  3. Holy curation coincidence batman

    As I point out in the blog post I just linked to (and wrote last week), there’s really not a great tool set out there from moving from the ‘gathering links’ phase of curation (e.g. Delicious.com) to the more traditional wiki/blog post phase, and there is a serious lack of annotation of links. But yeah, seeing more and more of a need for curation. Dan – people still like to have the comfort of a central authority. For instance, despite my abhorrence of monopoly, single platform etc. I still pretty much restrict my game purchasing to Steam. Convenience outweighs conscience if you will.

  4. Wow, some really great responses here! Going through them swiftly in turn:

    Sarah: I definitely take your point about a curator, in the more traditional sense, being an interlocutor rather than a subjective ‘picker’. I think perhaps some of the best online curators may do this already. However, it’s easier to get people interested with enthusiasm than objectivity.

    Ryan: Many of these types of curators aren’t getting rich quick, though. That’s because the ‘surfacing interesting stuff’-style curators don’t demand a cut of the revenues. The platforms like Facebook, Steam, iOS do, of course, which is another kind of curator…

    Danc: The whole point about more openness is a good one, when you’re talking financially and success-wise. In addition, I agree that word of mouth may be even more important to getting art noticed than curation, nowadays. (I guess you could call this ‘distributed curation’?)

    I think the passion behind my post was more that I love it when websites appear to raise the underappreciated up. You’re a lot more sophisicated than most of these people already – they just put their art out there and hope something happens. So there may need to be a step before they even get a chance to spread by word of mouth. It’s more like the ‘princemaker’ – the real king-ing happens by community and word of mouth nowadays.

    Andrew: Great post, and I agree that methods of curation are rough. I stil use Delicious, but I think a lot of other people don’t, heh.

  5. “I agree that word of mouth may be even more important to getting art noticed than curation, nowadays.”

    I definitely agree with DanC that word of mouth is king and any specific curated event (article, award, whatever) isn’t going to directly drive enough traffic for you to make a living. But I strongly believe those curated events have a powerful effect on the public perception of your game.

    I’ve caught myself about to recomend a band to a friend and first looking them up online to see if they’re considered cool or not. I feel terrible when I catch myself doing it but in mediums where I’m not very knowlegable (like music) I subconciously bow to accepted opinion.

    So I think curators have a strong effect on word of mouth. If the people in-the-know think something is great then you’ll feel more free to enthusiastically evangelise it yourself.

  6. For me, curation is less about tastemaking than the great points you raised about being a filter so you can provide your site’s visitors with great content you can build a discussion around.

    Being a curator actually is a demanding position given the dross you have to sift through. You can definitely appreciate the analogy of searching for diamonds in the rough.

    You really need to understand your topic and the demographics you are trying to reach and the direction you want to take. This is especially true as audiences become more fragmented. I think even good curators are challenged to maintain perspective.

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