It’s not curation or aggregation, it’s just how the Internet works

For some time now, the hot new buzzword for Web services has been “curation.” Whether it’s Pinterest or Tumblr or Flipboard or, everyone wants to ride the curation wave. But what does it mean, and how do you do it properly? And what makes it different from aggregation? Those kinds of debates have been around in one form or another since the Internet was invented, but they have resurfaced lately thanks to two proposals. One is trying to come up with a “code of conduct” for curators and aggregators, and the other is promoting the use of special symbols to give credit to original sources. These efforts may be well-intentioned, but they are also misguided and likely doomed, as virtually every attempt to control the Internet has been.
The code of conduct (which its proponents emphasize would be voluntary, thankfully) is the brainchild of a group of journalists including Simon Dumenco, a media writer for Advertising Age magazine, who has complained vociferously in the past about being mistreated by outlets such as the Huffington Post(s aol) who “over-aggregated” his content — that is, took too much of it, didn’t provide enough credit or committed a variety of other sins related to aggregation. While the Huffington Post has been a target of this kind of criticism more than any other new-media entity, largely because of its size; similar charges ricochet around the Web regularly involving a number of publications.

It’s called curation if you like it, aggregation if you don’t

Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill was attacked by many for taking chunks from a New York Times story (which was actually an excerpt from a book) and turning them into a blog post that allegedly “stole” traffic from the newspaper, even though the Forbes post contained multiple links to the NYT piece and gave it plenty of credit. That incident alone makes it clear just how complex the issue of curation or aggregation still is and how blurry the lines are between what is fair and what is not. And while the New York Times was the alleged victim in that case, it and other mainstream outlets are also routinely criticized for their failure to link to the sources of the stories they report on, behavior that is defended by many as totally ethical.

For anyone who has been around the blogosphere and the social Web for longer than a year or two, these discussions sound awfully familiar. Just a few years ago, some were advocating a code of conduct for bloggers, in part because of a violent cyberbullying attack on blogger Kathy Sierra. The problem with that effort was the same as it is with the current version: While it may be well-intentioned, no one who is actually doing the bad things that the code is supposed to prevent will pay any attention to it, as Gawker has pointed out. Those who choose to “over-aggregate” content, try to disguise the links they provide, or do dozens of other shady or unethical things will simply continue to do them.

We already have a way of giving credit: It’s called the hyperlink

In some ways, the attribution codes that Maria Popova — a masterful curator herself, through her Brainpickings website and related Twitter feed — wants to promote as a solution are both better and worse than the “code of conduct” idea. They seem like a more elegant and Web-native solution than a statement of ethical principles: a pair of codes that bloggers or any online publisher can include that provide credit to the original source of the content they are curating or aggregating. And yet, my suspicion is that virtually no one will use them, because they require too much effort.
And we already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink. Plenty of people don’t use the hyperlink as much as they should (including mainstream media sources such as the New York Times, although Executive Editor Jill Abramson said at SXSW that this is going to change) while others misuse and abuse them. But used properly, they serve the purpose of providing credit quite well. How to use them properly, of course — especially for journalistic purposes — is another whole can of worms, as Felix Salmon of Reuters and others have noted. And when it comes to curation and aggregation, it seems as though curation is what people call it when they like it, and aggregation is what they call it when they don’t.
In the end, this is a cultural thing, not something that can be legislated or imposed, either by a code or by inscrutable symbols. If you are a born blogger like Om or someone who lives and breathes the “link economy” (or whatever you want to call it), then you will understand good behavior and bad behavior. And you will know that eventually those who break the unwritten code or the ethical principles that have developed will get what is coming to them, because they will lose the trust of their readers — and trust, as we have pointed out before, is the new black when it comes to the media business. It can’t be measured or legislated, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Woodley Wonderworks