Curation Nation: It’s Time for Some Free Thinking

It’s the golden age of “curation” and smart marketers are exploiting it to their full advantage —but consumers may be losing something in the process if we go too far with this trend. Our hyper-reliance on a computer or human to filter choices or “advise“ us what we should read, eat, buy, wear, or anything else has been thrust into the stratosphere by digital saturation of social media, pre-digested content, and curation tools. It seems that while our world has gotten bigger with technology and information streams to help us make choices, our universe has actually shrunk.

Curation in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but if we’re not careful, overbearing marketers and algorithms will stifle our creativity, thought processes, and impetus to step outside our comfort zone. In this case, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior” should be stricken.

In the beginnings of the commercialized web, there seemed to be a two-step path for curation: First it was content  and then branched out into marketing (I would call this “preference choosing”). Information curation tools start with customized news page content from Google, or getting RSS feeds from favored online publications, aggregator sites like StumbleUpon, and sophisticated apps like Flipboard and Zite. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry focused solely on content curation and services. Pinterest, the hottest website of late, started as a repository for diverse interests but has turned into a ripe landscape for marketers as well.

And with marketing curation, etailers started tracking our preferences long before we even knew it. For instance, Amazon — a textbook example — tracks purchases, rating, page clicks and other behaviors which are evaluated and then spit out future buying recommendations. More recently, fashion curation services like Stitchfix will, for a monthly fee, put together an entire outfit and ship to you based on your likes and history. Hundreds of these valet curation services are popping up in every industry. They save time, effort and of course brainpower. Sometimes though these algorithms produce bizarre outcomes, as when Netflix recommended Justin Bieber’s life story “Never Say Never” based on my interest in certain documentaries. I would actually call that “anti-curation” (or even anti-Christ).

Curation sometimes even blends the online and the real world. I ran across a Utique vending machine in downtown San Francisco where you can buy pricey little gadgets and accessories for that last-minute gift or impulse purchase. (and yes, I was tempted to purchase a blinged-out coin purse after a few drinks but didn’t). Forget those $1 snacks. Apparently this trend is big in Japan. Vending machines appear old school but don’t be fooled, it’s faux retro.  Utique also has a smart online presence with whimsical product categories like Get Set to Jet Set, Boredom Cures and even Passion Plays (yeah, that stuff).

This isn’t to say humans haven’t been “casually curating” for thousands of years. Every decision we make is an attempt to whittle down choices, not create more: Be it Cleopatra’s servants showing her several dazzling gowns to wear to a ceremony or cavemen deciding to kill a bird or a bison, this is a daily part of life throughout the ages. Deciding where to buy electronics, go on vacation, consume libations, or even pick our friends (don’t forget that Caller ID is the ultimate curation tool) is furthered by our own filtering mechanisms and serve as a reinforcement of our innate desires, needs, and choices we might have made anyway. But what they don’t do is throw in any sort of wild card or unfamiliar thought, or spurn a kernel of an idea.  And isn’t that what life is about?

Randomness. Surprise. New. Reading a different point of view or research on a given topic. Discovering the beauty of red when you normally go to green. Reading an amusing sports story even though it’s not on your news feed. Trying a new restaurant even though you normally don’t go to a certain neighborhood.  Or perhaps more dramatically:  Making a larger decision that is precipitated by entering an unfamiliar door you would not typically choose.  These possibilities only exist with something haven’t done before. Even our bodies don’t tolerate sameness: It’s been proven that doing the same exercises all the time doesn’t burn calories. It’s cross-training — the “shocks” to the body — that gets our hearts pumping.

At the end of the day, curation is a part of our life, online and off, whether we like it or not or are even aware of it.  It’s not about choosing something different for the sake of doing so, it’s about being open to new possibilities.  Going off the curation grid and discovering for ourselves.  Learning to embrace the unexpected.

Otherwise we may fall victim to the age-old warning: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

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4 thoughts on “Curation Nation: It’s Time for Some Free Thinking

  1. Wow this is GOOD Janny! Makes me think that it cheapens what curators actually do in museums–educate the public and make people think outside their limits (a monkey could have done that) whereas this closes people off as if it were a mirror of their own worlds. A kind of truman show where each person stars in their own personal realities. How scary!

  2. Great post! +1 for algorithms that serve up content based on my recent past behaviors. I’m so incredibly busy currently so curation is saving me a lot of time. Talented data scientists analyzing massive amounts of data (a.k.a. big data) and coming up with algorithms that succeed in getting me to stay on or return to the web site should be rewarded with my loyalty. One day when I’m not so incredibly busy I’ll go back to thinking on my own. 🙂

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