Curating in the Digital Era: 5 Ways to Stand Out When Everyone’s a Curator

It’s never been easier to be a digital curator. The rise of smartphones and tablets, coupled with the ubiquity of high-speed networks for searching, streaming, and selecting content to share, has made it possible to curate with just one touch, tap, or swipe.

But in an era when everyone can be a curator via Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr, it’s harder to stand out. And for artists and makers creating the content we consume, it’s harder to know where you stand when the rules of sharing aren’t clear.

So, how can you be a successful curator today? And what are the rules for the culturally curious? Here are some guiding principles.

1) Have a Point of View

Curating in our hyper-connected digital age is no longer about simply gathering pieces together to show people what’s cool – or just sharing the newest things without understanding their meaning or value. Instead, today’s curator must have a point of view. The word “curate” comes from the Latin term meaning “to care for.” To be a curator in the truest sense is to do more than pick things out; it’s to take care of them, too, presenting them in such a way that shows what you believe.

One example of a platform for curation with a strong point of view is Enrou, the socially minded commerce site of handmade goods by artisans in developing countries. The site takes care to connect shoppers with artisan makers because it believes shoppers should know where their products came from. By carefully managing not only the collection but its relationship to the maker as well, the company pushes toward its lofty goal of ending poverty by supporting the livelihoods of individuals around the world. Now that’s a point of view.

2) Dig Deep and Be Diverse

Curating takes passion, knowledge, and curiosity. The best curations scratch beneath the surface and take us beyond what’s obvious. At WeTransfer, going beyond the obvious is part of our DNA; it motivates us to find new works of art to share on our site, which we use as full-screen wallpapers for people to enjoy while transferring their large files.

In our quest to share new works, we’re inspired by our journeys and personal experiences. We look for the ordinary seen through a different light or perspective, making it unusual or new. That’s what caught our eye about these colorful illustrations of New York’s typically gray skyline, and led us to feature the artist Remko Heemskerk on our site. We’re also interested in travel and exploration of other cultures, because that’s where you discover the new.

No matter what you seek, don’t get too comfortable with your sources. It’s important to constantly diversify and take risks. Don’t be afraid that someone won’t like your selections and the care you took in managing them. If no one ever objects to what you’re doing, you’re probably playing it too safe.

3) Don’t Be Selfish

Curation is a powerful thing when done well. It offers the opportunity to build and nurture strong communities by bringing people together around a common theme, and strong communities have the power to do great things in the world.

One of the fundamental keys to building a community is being unselfish; you must be willing to send people away from your site when curating. Curating is sharing, not copying, so it must open the door for people to discover the new things you’re introducing and give them the chance to go learn more. It might seem counterintuitive given today’s SEO-driven mentality of driving eyeballs to a site and staying there, but the best curations lead to new worlds.

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is one of the best examples of this. Started in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, Popova’s blog now draws more than 5.5 million readers monthly. A collection of readings, thoughts, and commentary on the arts, history, and culture, every post is packed with quotes, attributions, and links – both to her own previous posts as well as other sources where readers can purchase the book being quoted or read more deeply about a subject. Whenever an artist is named, a link to his or her site is provided, which should be standard practice everywhere.

In its simplest form the site is a curation of articles, essays, poems, and artworks on how to live more creatively with intellectual curiosity – and its popularity speaks to how much readers appreciate being introduced to new (or old) thoughts and worlds.

4) Always Give Attribution

Being unselfish means giving credit for the art, music, words, or creative ideas being shared – to do anything less is simply stealing. Yet with so much content so easily available and shareable, it’s no wonder sharing without attribution has become so rampant.

We see examples of this all the time. In some cases, the offenders are caught and publicly shamed, such as social media personality Josh Ostrovsky (aka “The Fat Jew”), whose contract with entertainment agency CAA was canceled after it was revealed that he had stolen other comedians’ jokes. But in many instances, creative work is simply co-opted and shared with no attribution. No one wins in these scenarios, and for would-be curators, it’s no way to stand apart from the crowd.

Always providing attribution not only avoids the tangle of copyright issues out there relating to artwork of all kinds, it’s simply the right thing to do. Forcing artists to go on the defensive defeats the purpose of curating, which should lead to discovery for those viewing the work. So give credit where credit is due; name the artist, provide a link, and make the attribution clear. The familiar adage, “with great power comes great responsibility” applies: When you have a platform to support and share great talent, it can have a huge impact on artists, their talent, and their surroundings, not to mention your own credibility. As long as you pay attribution to the artist, you’re golden.

5) Curate for Social Interaction

Curating today means mixing things up, bringing different types of content together, and bringing different types of people together in new interactions. The most powerful content is chosen with a specific individual in mind, not a faceless mob.

For example, last year Drake curated an exhibit for Sotheby’s, pairing music with art by contemporary black artists. In a more traditional setting, MoMA Chief Curator Ann Temkin considers writing to be one of her important responsibilities, saying “words and images go together.” Whichever way you mix it up, bridging different media is a way to bring groups together that otherwise might not have the chance to meet.

The concept of curation – once a topic limited to museums – is here to stay. As the democratization of digital content grows and evolves, we are continually driven to explore, discover, and share what is new.

Nalden is co-founder of WeTransfer and Present Plus.

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