The amount of content and information on the Web expands daily at a staggering rate. This explosion of information has created the need for talented digital curators who are able to filter the very best of the Web and help us find what’s worth reading each day. In fact, digital “curation” may be one of the hottest-growing areas of the Web right now. For example, in early August, Google News began offering "Editors' Picks" alongside results from the Google search algorithm.
Now, corporate America is catching on.
On an individual level, you can think of digital curators the same way you think of museum curators: People who not only provide constant updates regarding what’s cool, new and interesting within their fields — but also individuals who can, with a unique aesthetic or voice, provide an overall cultural context for each piece of content they come across and promote.
For now, two of the more popular Web curators, Brain Pickings and Boing Boing, are edited by individuals who have a unique viewpoint on a particular subject area without any commercial interest in what they’re writing about. Within any 24-hour period, for example, Brain Pickings’s Maria Popova might point readers to a video about an icon of typography, a new book about narrative and storytelling in the digital era, and insights into musical notation and tennis. These digital curators — similar to their art-world counterparts — are engaged in a labor of love to find and curate the very best of the Web.
What happens, though, when the type of content curated on the Web begins to be influenced by corporations’ financial interest?
Companies, eager to find the most effective way to broadcast their message across the Web, have started to embrace digital curation as a means of staying relevant to consumers. In the process of creating this content, however, they are starting to blur the line between editorial and advertising — what folks in the marketing business call “advertorial” and “branded content.” A majority of the more popular branded, digital curation sites are in fashion and luxury goods, where it is possible — even desirable — to curate an aspirational lifestyle around specific products.
Last year, Nowness, curated by French luxury firm LVMH, raised eyebrows in Web circles when it began to curate “the latest in fashion, art, cinema, entertainment, culture, music, gastronomy, design, travel and the world of luxury.” The content is compelling, but at what point do art and commerce merge? This summer, Harley Davidson launched a new online initiative to feature content from some of the Web’s best curators. The new Harley Davidson Ridebook Web site will feature curated content in six different areas, including culture, style, music and travel. For now, the site only features a section on Tomcats Barbershop and “the art of the classic American haircut.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with corporations putting their content on the Web, but it does begin to raise questions about how these companies are starting to influence what we see, hear and read online. It’s getting harder and harder to tell "sponsored stories" from real stories and “promoted tweets” from real tweets. Sometimes browsing the Web is like watching a really clever infomercial or reading a magazine insert and not even realizing that you’re consuming little more than clever advertising.
The mention of Harley-Davidson is not an accident. Think back to 1998, when the Guggenheim Museum stirred up controversy with its Art of the Motorcycle exhibition. Was this art the kind of “high” art that patrons of the Guggenheim should be seeing, or was it something fundamentally different — a sort of consumerist pop art for the masses, supported by sponsors such as BMW?
Will the Web follow a similar path, where the financial interests of corporate sponsors begin to shape — or even replace — the quirky, aesthetic tastes of the savvy individual curator?
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