The Pointless Debate Over Web Curation vs. Aggregation

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. 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 an attempt to come up with a “code of conduct” for curators and aggregators, while the other promotes the use of special symbols to give credit to original sources. These efforts may be well-intentioned, but they are misguided and likely doomed—as virtually every attempt to control the Internet has proven.

The code of conduct (which, thankfully, proponents emphasize would be voluntary) is the brainchild of a group of journalists that include Simon Dumenco, a media writer for Advertising Age, who has complained vociferously in the past about being mistreated by outlets such as the Huffington Post, which he said “over-aggregated” his content—that is, took too much of it, didn’t provide enough credit, or committed a variety of further sins related to aggregation. While Huffington Post has been a target of such criticism more than any other new-media entity, largely because of its size, similar charges involving a number of publications and outlets regularly ricochet around the Web.

Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill was attacked by many for turning chunks of a New York Times story (which was actually an excerpt from a book) 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 clear just how complex the issue of curation vs. aggregation still is and how blurry the lines are between what is fair and what is not. 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 stories they report—a behavior defended by many as 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 with the current version: While the code may be well-intentioned, no one who is actually doing the bad things it is supposed to prevent would pay any attention, as Gawker has pointed out. Those who choose to “over-aggregate” content, try to disguise links they provide, or do dozens of other shady or unethical things will simply continue to do them.

In some ways, the attribution codes that Maria Popova—a masterful curator herself, through her Brain Pickings website and related Twitter feed—wants to promote as a solution are both better and worse than the “code of conduct” idea. They seem 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. Yet I suspect virtually no one will use them because they require too much effort.

We already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink. Plenty of people don’t use hyperlinks 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. Used properly, they serve the purpose of providing credit quite well. How to use them properly—especially for journalistic purposes—is a can of worms, as Felix Salmon of Reuters and others have noted. And when it comes to curation vs. aggregation, it seems as though curation is what people call it when they like the process; aggregation is what they call it when they don’t.

In the end, this is a cultural thing. It’s not something that can be legislated or imposed, either by code or 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. 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.

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