Curatorial compulsion

Nick Bilton writes in the NYT about the curatorial impulse that living online has unleashed.

I go to scour the Web looking for more news to sift through and ration out to my friends and followers — a natural course of action in my day. I spend a considerable amount of time each day looking for interesting angles about technology, news, journalism, design or just the latest comic video to pass along the daisy chain.

Most of us do this to some degree. We are no longer just consumers of content, we have become curators of it too.

If someone approached me even five years ago and explained that one day in the near future I would be filtering, collecting and sharing content for thousands of perfect strangers to read — and doing it for free — I would have responded with a pretty perplexed look. Yet today I can’t imagine living in a world where I don’t filter, collect and share.

This is a perfect example of how performing free immaterial labor is starting to rule our days, become a compulsion. No longer a hobby, it’s an entire mode of being. Life is winnowing down to operations of this limited scope and scale — pointing and thumbs-upping at texts and images.

If we don’t curate online, it’s as if we cease to exist. The efforts are existentially significant to us, but we only get back the sense of being alive; the companies and peers who we are producing for can harvest the value of this labor. But as Bilton points out, we recoup some of the value of the labor by capitalizing on the curatorial work of others: “Without this collective discovery online, I couldn’t imagine trying to cull the tens of thousands of new links and stories that appear in the looking glass on a daily basis.” But should we even feel obliged to? Isn’t that a grandiose and hubristic pursuit? To know the best of everything that is going on everywhere? When the urge strikes me to “keep up with music,” I feel what Bilton is talking about most keenly, but instead of feeling caught up, I instead feel hopelessly behind, as I often do when I log in to my Google Reader.

Bilton cites Maria Popova, a curator he follows, who discusses what she does as “controlled serendipity” and “content discovery.” These cold, oxymoronic phrases are apt in that they convey some of the mechanistic nature of the process, which Bilton labels a “reflex.” But what happens is more like forced serendipity, a demand that the world give forth “content” to satisfy our curiosity, which atrophies, becomes lazier. Online, curiosity loses its active component as it becomes accelerated. I feel it when I fire through the 500 articles in my RSS feed, much of it densely written articles and essays that I cast aside with a glance. Maybe I file it in a shared folder with a satisfied sense of completion. Job well done, curator.