Crowdsourced Curation

Eric Reasons lays out a case (via p2p foundation) for the inevitability of “crowdsourced curation” — i.e. automated filtering based on the efforts of other internet users to rank, rate, and recommend content, and on social networks to gather and share links and content appropriate to the groups that form themselves. His argument is that the internet has made it easy to produce and distribute new content, and thus nothing will prevent the channel from being flooded with material not worthy of general attention. With so much material, we will need to democratize gate-keeping functions in order to have all the material appropriately processed. “The Internet has enabled us to build our social graph, and in turn, that social graph acts as an aggregate gatekeeper,” he writes, adopting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s cryptic marketing lingo.

But that’s a bit of an odd way of assessing the situation. A lot of amateur content is produced with the social network in mind and is presorted — no one needs to judge the photos one attached to a Facebook profile or most of the YouTube videos people upload to amuse their friends and family. Much of the other stuff getting filtered to us online falls into the category of memes — cultural material in effect produced by the existence of a vast communications network. Music and blogs and whatnot not produced for friends and family cultivate their own audiences idiosyncratically on the strength of search-engine returns and the relevance of their content until they manage to become memeified: they are adopted by one of the major aggregators and become something that people forward to one another. So the gatekeepers for most of that stuff already exist as well — BoingBoing, Metafilter, etc. Of course some content gets made and promoted explicitly in hopes of becoming a meme. Some might argue that culture industry product is settling into the notion that the meme in the only relevant commodity it deals in now.

We don’t need new gatekeepers for either memes or homegrown friend-and-family stuff that finds its way online. Gatekeepers for the remaining cultural domains are arguably lacking only because the internet has eroded their ability to get paid for their services; the internet shares the essence of their judgments too quickly and too freely. It’s not that there is more stuff to be judged; it’s that the judges are forced by the new medium to judge for free. Since this leads to nobody doing it as a paying job, it becomes a collective responsibility to get that work done — hence the free information-processing labor performed by ordinary internet users in their everyday practices, expressing themselves and sharing and so on. They are forced to be productive behind their own backs — they are not “leaping into production,” as Reasons writes.

As Reasons suggests, Apple has a dictatorial approach to this issue. With its closed platforms, it is trying to re-enclose the commons that the internet threatens to become. But when Reasons asks, “Can you imagine if Apple had to approve your videos for posting on YouTube, where every minute, 24 hours of footage are uploaded?” It is a misleading question. The space of the open internet is limited only by server space and the power required to run the machinery; it requires no special curation to prevent it from being overwhelmed. When Apple approves apps for its devices, it’s saying it will basically only consider those from professionals. So, I can very easily imagine Apple’s ideal world, where AppleTube rejects 99.9% of potential content out of hand and only approves the material from preapproved suppliers from within the established media giants. The production of amateur content is irrelevant to the media business and helps sharpen the value of professional content, provided you can properly enclose it. In most cases, the only productive work amateurs do online involves processing, not creating, content.