Thursday, May 20, 2010

From UGC to UCC

I have noticed, that a good part of the articles I read online have been suggested by members of my various social networks. Maybe it is a part of the true utility of social networks to be a platform for "User Curated Content".

While the web in its first phase tried to mirror the offline world, by moving every brick and mortar institution and service online, the so called web 2.0 promised a new world of participatory media, where everybody can create content. While digital media have drastically lowered the production costs, the web has driven distribution costs to near zero. Looking around on blogging sites, flickr, YouTube or other cornerstones of the "User Generated Content" revolution there are some seriously talented people out there! Some people have managed to make a mark, some even managed to make a living or become minor Internet celebrities in some field. Some other stuff is whimsical, funny or personal. There are unexpected viral hits or observers who happen to be at the right place at the right time and turn into citizen journalists. But the vast majority is just plain boring and inconsequential rubbish.

More so than ever, the problem has become discovery - i.e. finding the stuff that's relevant, interesting, worthwhile, stimulating, satisfying etc. at this point. When production and distribution of content is expensive as in traditional media, there are plenty of people whose primary role it is to make choices of what is being produced and distributed on behalf of their audience. They are called curators, editors, DJs, program directors, executive producers etc. and they are often the most most well know, prestigious (and feared/hated) people in their organization.

Curators make choices which works of art are on display and which ones are in storage, the ones at leading institutions even define what is considered art, based on what they acquire for their collections. Editors in chief decide what stories are being printed and define our perception of what is news. In a situation of scarce resources the difference between a curator and a censor are often only the nature of their intentions (educate and enlighten vs. oppress). On the Internet, the role of a curator is different. There is (near) infinite wall-space and everything which exists can be exposed - but because of that often not be seen or found by anybody in the sheer mass of stuff out there.

There are a few successful strategies for finding something in this giant heap of digital noise. Contextual search ranking revolutionized web-search in the late 90ies by creating algorithmic determinations of what is presumably more interesting or relevant to a particular question. Clustering algorithms can help find similar things to something we like and recommendation engines can suggest things which people like me have liked.

However, in a world dominated by the chatter of millions of undistinguished sources, search can often fail to find the nuggets in the trash heap. And recommendation engines only reinforce my current point of view. How can I learn, grow, be surprised and intrigued if I am only ever fed things recommended by people like me? Why should my taste and judgment be any good... I would rather get recommendations from people who are smarter, more knowledgeable, more stylish and more plugged in to a particular filed, but that's hard to decide by algorithmic means.

So we are back to curators. Or editors, guides, teachers, gurus, opinion-makers, trend-leaders, talent-scouts or whatever we want to call them. Relevance is no longer defined globally but based on people whose judgment we trust and respect. Social networks can be a source of such relevance, following the age-old patterns of world of mouth among friends and family. Or more powerful would be asymmetric social networks where we can find somebody whose judgment we respect and "follow them", without them necessarily having to know us.

In fact many blogger are in fact more editors or curators than creators of original content. This is even more so with micro-blogging systems like Twitter, which many consider the quintessential asymmetric social network. And Wikipedia is probably the most high profile project, where domain experts can live out their inner librarian and do so with great determination.

Given the importance of curators, I think there is still too much emphasis on content creation. The real challenge today is to mine the piles of digital trash for nuggets of gold which most certainly exist in numbers never seen before. We already have more content than we ever know what to do with, but there are not enough platforms and frameworks where people who would like to organize it could shine and be recognized. Part of the problem is that when it comes to derived works, copyright gets really murky and it's hard to say who should get credit (or even paid) for what. But it is time for online curators to get more respect and for librarians to step into the limelight. And this could easily be one of the next big things for online digital media platforms.