Social curation is much more than just a market

In 2010, “curation” popped up on tech blogs and VCs’ radars. Since then, people have been asking whether curation is a legitimate trend, a new market to be exploited, or just the latest buzzword.
Some people, including GigaOM writer Bobbie Johnson, have wondered if curation is a bubble, and if it is, when is it going to burst? When Johnson asked this question, I think the jury was still out. As the chief evangelist for the social library Pearltrees, I was directly involved in the “Web curation” movement early on, and I think it is now clear that social curation is not a bubble. The more I watch the development of social curation and the more I learn about the what, how and why of it, the more convinced I become that what we’re seeing is going to grow well beyond a simple market.
One of the characteristics of online activities that transcend simple markets is that they are analogous to behaviors that seem to be hardwired into humans. People have always had the desire to create, share what we’ve created and see what others have created. The emergence of the Web democratized access to content created by others in a way not seen since the invention of the printing press. And the explosion of sites that democratized our ability to share content gave us the second phase of the Web with the birth of wikis, blogs, video sharing sites and Twitter. I think of these services as the digital analog of primitive man sitting around the fire and telling stories.
Humans also love to collect things — from tiny stamps to shiny cars. And what do we do with these things once we have them? We play with our collections. We organize, shape and prune them, and we display our collections for the benefit of others and the occasional bragging right. “Curation” is simply a stiff sounding word for an innate human activity — collecting, organizing and sharing — that people are now engaging in online.
Compared to creating original content, curation is even easier. (The rapid growth of Pinterest proves this pretty clearly.) And it is a deeper part of our behavior than most people realize. The fact is, all of us are curating every single day. Simply choosing an outfit is an act of curation. Although those decisions are small and personal, they aren’t that different from the decisions made by a museum curator or a newspaper editor.
Our love of curation is being further democratized on the Web with the explosion of tools and startups that approach curation in different ways and with different business models. Investors have now bet well in excess of $150 million on companies that use the word “curation” to describe their business models.
Some examples of curation services include the following sites:

  • Pinterest, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is a site for collecting and sharing photos and videos. Currently, valued at more than $1 billion, the site uses affiliate links to generate some revenue. I think it will likely partner with brands and use advertising in the future.
  • Storify is designed to help journalists collect links, tweets and images and then organize them in the context of a story. The Washington Post is one of the major media outlets using the tool. The company has not announced a revenue model yet, but it hopes to make money while empowering journalists to do the same.
  • Pearltrees, the company I work for, is a social library that lets users collect links (and soon images and notes) and organize them however they like. The product also allows contributors to team up and curate topics collaboratively. The company has announced plans to offer premium features, including the ability to keep some or all of an account private for a monthly fee. Pearltrees sees more than one link per second added to its database by contributors, 24 hours per day.
  • is a newspaper style curation product that partially automates the collection of links. As such, it is really a hybrid curation and aggregation product with some social hooks. It has the potential to make money by placing ads in the newspapers its users create. It could then share some of this revenue with its users.

In my opinion, online curation isn’t going to be a winner takes all game. There are too many ways that people collect, too many different things that people collect and too many different types of collectors for this to happen.
Patrice Lamothe, the founder and CEO of Pearltrees, has called curation “the Web’s third frontier.” He argues that it was envisioned by the creators of the Web at the outset of the project and that it is a natural evolution of the medium.
I agree with his perspective. When we enable innate behaviors in the digital realm, the result is far more significant than the creation of a product — or a new market. I think we’ll soon realize that today’s curation startups are simply the earliest steps on the path to the full and complete democratization of a Web that each of us uses and also makes our own.
Oliver Starr is the chief evangelist for Pearltrees. Previously, he was the first employee at TechCrunch. He is also a well-known activist on behalf of wolves and wild places. 
Image courtesy of Flickr user Thea N.