curators and imitators

You know what annoys me? Well, actually, that would be a long list. You know one thing that annoys me? The way some people on the internet use the word “curator.” People find cool stuff online and put links to that cool stuff on their website, and they say that they’re “curating” the internet. When Jorn Barger invented that kind of thing he was content to call it a weblog — a record or “log” of interesting stuff he found online.

Now, one might argue that the weblog or blog has changed its character since Barger invented it: instead of logging cool things found online, it primarily logs a writer’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences (often about stuff found online). So maybe a new name is needed for the “logging” kind of site?

Maybe. But can we try for something a little less pretentious than “curator”? In the usual modern senses of the word, a curator (who often works for a museum) has a complex set of responsibilities that can only be carried out well by someone with a good deal of training, taste, experience, and intelligence. A curator plays a role in deciding what a museum will acquire, and once acquisitions have been made, will consider which objects are to be displayed, for how long they will be displayed, and in relation to what other objects they will be displayed. Curators organize objects in space and present them for public scrutiny. They also educate the public in the understanding of those objects, and of the principles of organization employed. Curators also help to care for those objects, to make sure they don’t get damaged or lost. (In ecclesiastical language, the priest who cares for the people of a parish while the rector is away is called a curate.)

Almost none of this is at work when people link to interesting things they have found on the internet. If a person whose website links to other websites is a curator, then a person who walks into the Louvre with a friend and points out the Mona Lisa is also a curator. It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction.

When I first made a comment about this on Twitter recently, I got pushback from my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and since he’s a very smart guy I have thought about this some more. His concern is that my point is unnecessarily elitist, and I don’t mean for it to be that — and I don’t think it is. It’s just a matter (I hope) of distinguishing among different sorts of online activity.

So I’d suggest this as the beginnings of a taxonomy:

1) The Linker: That’s what most of us are. We just link to things we’re interested in, without any particular agenda or system at work. That’s what my Pinboard page is, just a page of links.

2) The Coolhunter: People who strive to find the unusual, the striking, the amazing — the very, very cool, often within certain topical boundaries, but widely and loosely defined ones. I think Jason Kottke and Maria Popova are exemplary online coolhunters.

3) The Curator: There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together. I think Bibliodyssey is a genuinely curated site; also, just because of its highly distinctive sensibility, Things magazine.

Again, I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others. They’re just all different, and the difference is worth noting.

does anything change anything?

Marshall Poe says that “the Internet changes nothing”:

The media experts, however, tell us that there really is something new and transformative about the Internet. It goes under various names, but it amounts to “collaboration.” The Internet makes it much easier for people to do things together. Look, they say, at email discussion lists, community blogs, auction sites, product rating pages, gaming portals, wikis, and file trading services. Collaboration abounds online. That’s a fair point. But “easier” is not new or transformative. There is nothing new about any of the activities that take place on the aforementioned sites. We did them all in the Old World of Old Media. As for transformative, the evidence is thin. The basic institutions of modern society in the developed world—representative democracy, regulated capitalism, the welfare net, cultural liberalism—have not changed much since the introduction of the Internet. The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then. . . .

Following this logic, let me also affirm that the printing press changed nothing: sure, it made making book easier, but “easier” is not new or transformative. People wrote and read books before the printing press, and they continued to write and read them afterwards. What’s the big deal?

Similarly, the internal combustion engine changed nothing. Before it was invented, we went to Grandma’s house, and even traveled from New York to Chicago — it just took a little longer. And “faster” is not new or transformative, you know.

I could go on for a while. . . . But in all seriousness, Poe makes some good points along the way. He’s just generating page views with an outrageous thesis. I bet he also advocates using federal municipal bonds to forcibly bus known Communists into your homes to Kill your puppies!

the commodification of intimacy

This sobering post from Nick Carr suggests that we ought to be worried, or at least seriously reflective, about “web revolutionaries” who are pushing the commercialism and commodification of human intimacy:

What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives — their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose — these are all writers who court business audiences — but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.

I think Nick is right about this — as is Jaron Lanier when he sounds a similar note — and I say that as someone generally enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial possibilities of online culture.

On some level we all know this commodification of intimacy is happening: no thoughtful person can possibly believe that Mark Zuckerberg’s crusade for “radical transparency” is a genuine Utopian ethic; we know that he’s articulating a position that, if widely accepted, yields maximum revenue for Facebook. But we are just beginning to think about how radically transparent we are becoming, and if Nick Carr is right, we very much need some “web revolutionaries” who really are revolutionary in their repudiation of these trends.

In other words, the problem isn’t the businessmen who want to dig around in our brains — of course the business world wants to dig around in our brains: haven’t you seen “Mad Men”? — the problem is the failure of influential wired intellectuals to provide the necessary corrective pushback.

open letters and closed ones

So far three friends of mine have signed up for, and are producing newsletters that I can sign up for. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I want to support my friends, and I know that it’s hard to write (or do any other skilled labor) for free. Heck, I’ve even thought about signing up for myself.

But on the other hand, projects like this are more nails in the coffin of the open web, and I don’t like seeing that happen, even though it’s probably inevitable. Almost any of the newsletters would have been blogs as recently as a few months ago — most of them probably were blogs a few months ago — and thus part of the most public conversational space yet invented. Now they’ll be the property of a select few — which is pretty much how things used to be before the internet. Bill Gates’s famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” appeared in a computer club newsletter; the great Bill James’s Baseball Abstract began life as a newsletter: people found out about it through ads in The Sporting News. marks an attempt to renew the newsletter as a genre for the digital age. (There are a number of free newsletters out there — e.g., Jason Calcanis’s — but I’m talking about newsletters s a means of revenue for their writers.)

Then there are experiments like the Times of London’s paywall experiment: results are mixed so far, but even if the Times site ends up making money, a formerly major player has been taken out of the general conversation of the Web. Similarly, as more and more people encounter newspapers and magazines not in web browsers but in purpose-built iPad apps, it may get harder to do the copying, pasting, and commenting that have been intrinsic to the blogging enterprise since its inception.

But again, if that does happen it will be a return to the Normal of twenty years ago. Then I bought magazines and newspapers individually, and if I wanted to keep items in them I literally cut them out and filed them — rarely did I paste. If now I buy them individually as iPad apps, with in-app purchase of single issues or subscriptions (which is what Wired, among others, wants me to do) then I have largely returned to old habits, though any copying and pasting I do will be digital and there won’t be any cutting at all.

I remember when I had to think hard about how many magazines and newspapers I was subscribing to, and whether I could afford a new one without canceling something else. Maybe I’ll soon be making those decisions again. I understand the necessary of such changes, but I don’t have to like them. I especially don’t like the thought that I might hurt someone’s feelings by not subscribing to — or, worse, canceling my subscription to — his or her newsletter. And I am deeply uncomfortable with the thought that that One Great Conversation may be breaking up again. It’s starting to look like I’ll soon be nostalgic for those few years when I had a single-payee system — once a month to an ISP — after which the whole world came to my screen.

our de-browsered future

I think Michael Hirschorn may be right:

After 15 years of fruitless experimentation, media companies are realizing that an advertising-supported model is not the way to succeed on the Web and they are, at last, seeking to get consumers to pay for their content. They are operating on the largely correct assumption that people will be more likely to pay for consumer-friendly apps via the iPad, and a multitude of competing devices due out this year, than they are to subscribe to the same old kludgy Web site they have been using freely for years. As a result, media companies will soon be pushing their best and most timely content through their apps instead of their Web sites. Meanwhile, video-content services are finding that they don’t even need to bother with the Web and the browser. Netflix, for one, is well on its way to sending movies and TV shows directly to TV sets, making their customers’ experience virtually indistinguishable from ordering up on-demand shows by remote control. It’s far from a given that this shift will generate the kinds of revenue media companies are used to: for under-30s whelped on free content, the prospect of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars yearly for print, audio, and video (on expensive new devices that require paying AT&T $30 a month) is not going to be an easy sell. . . .All of this suggests that the era of browser dominance is coming to a close. . . . Years from now, we may look back at these past 15 years as a discrete (and thrillingly indiscreet) chapter in the history of digital media, not the beginning of a new and enlightened dispensation.

And while people will pay for entertainment if they have to, will they pay for news and other substantial information? I have my doubts about that.

every day in every way. . .

Jonah Lehrer:

There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in visual attention and memory.Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

I wish I could believe this. And Clay Shirky too.Also, I wanted to finish reading this story but I had to write this blog post. And tweet some.

“How is the Internet changing how you think?”

The “Question of the Year” at Edge is: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” (Though some parts of the website phrase it differently: “How has the Internet changed the way you think?”) I will be commenting on some of the answers — though not all 159 of them — in the coming days and weeks, but I want to start with Danny Hillis, because he makes an essential distinction that not too many others will bear in mind:

It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people, are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. . . . The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe’s trivialization, is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web. . . . By the Internet, I mean the global network of interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how the Internet is changing the way we think.I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don’t bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

It seems to me difficult to overstress how important this is — and how much more important than the ways we interact with our personal computers.