Imagine, if you will, a world in which Richard Seaver or Robert Gottlieb had stomped their feet and huffed and puffed every time John Leonard forgot to give them their proper "hat tip". Or, rather, as I joked on Twitter over the weekend about the new "Curator's Code", if Goethe had lived long enough to chide Mann for writing about Faust and giving a "ᔥ" to Marlowe but forgetting to give a "↬" to Goethe.
It's funny to think about! But only for a minute, since after that it all just becomes too depressing for words, because what we talk about when we talk about curation first of all sure ain't curation and secondly isn't even all that special. But mostly it's depressing because it's a conversation that happens at the expense of original content itself.
First, let's just get clear on the terminology here: "Curation" is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history; the business in which we're all engaged when we're tossing links around on the Internet is simple "sharing". And some of us are very good at that! (At least if we accept "very good" to mean "has a large audience.")
But we should not delude ourselves for a moment into bestowing any special significance on this, because when we do this thing that so many of us like to call "curation", we're not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire. "Interesting things" or "smart things" are not rubrics that make the collection and dissemination of data that happens on the internet anything closer to a curatorial act; these categories are ultimately still reducible to "things I find appealing", and regardless of how special one might feel about the highly cultivated state of his or her tastes, there is no threshold of how many other people are eager to be on the receiving end of whatever it is we're sharing that somehow magically transforms this act into curation — that is, at least, unless we're also comfortable with arguing that "curation" is the act in which Buzzfeed is engaged. Or The Huffington Post. Or the top contributor on those weightlifting comment boards.
Remember what it was like way back in the dark ages before the Internet? When all sorts of IRL conversations like this would occur?
"Hey I saw the coolest thing in a magazine today."
"A bunch of pictures of cats — that all looked like Hitler!"
"OMG I HAVE TO SEE THAT!"
"LOL RIGHT?! I'll xerox it for you!"
What we do online every day is no different, and neither the introduction of an audience nor the torrent of information we wade through on a daily basis does anything at all to alter or enhance this fundamental behaviour. Call it sifting, call it filtering, call it editing even, but it sure as hell isn't curating.
Which makes it all very curious to me that those most eager to self-desribe as "curators" are often the most vocal in their concerns with "proper" attribution. And attribution I can get behind! Footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies — I'm a big fan! I'm also a big fan of the internet's native form of attribution, the hyperlink. Yet the Curator's Code seeks to bolt an additional piece of ultimately vestigial metadata onto this native form — the "ᔥ" — an addition only made necessary so as to distinguish this one particular form of attribution from that other one which Popova and others are so eager to see elevated: the "via".
Now the "hat-tip" has long been a simple courtesy, not some kind of moral commandment; its omission from any citation is in no way the sort of punishable offence that failing to attribute any borrowed content would be. That's because usually the greatest sin of omitting a "via" is denying someone else the moment of flattery that comes with the recognition that some other follows whatever it is they has to share, whereas omitting a link to original content is, you know, stealing.
But as far as value-adds go the "via" generally offers little more than a cookie crumb trail of others who have also read the material in question — the digital equivalent of finding the previous borrower's name scribbled on the card in the back of a library book. Which is neat, I guess? But come on now, none of us here is Averroes rediscovering Aristotle or Poggio Bracciolini serendipitously plucking Lucretius off a dusty shelf — this is people posting pictures of yawning kittens on Tumblr blogs we're talking about here.
And yet we see this sort of thing happen all the time on the internet, all these great hand-wringing debates over "proper" attribution ("proper" usually meaning "sending traffic my way as a reward for finding something first").
And it all stinks to high heaven of self-importance.
Think of how often the words "broke the reblog chain" get bandied about in breathy Tumblr scolds, as if the put-off bloggers behind these scolds are all wilfully ignorant of the possibility — hard to believe! I know! — that someone could have run across the same piece of original content elsewhere on the Internet. Or think of how often one link aggregator complains that another link aggregator has "stolen" his material without giving proper credit. Aggregators! Arguing about who aggregated what first!!
So much ink has been spilled over something so ridiculously petty. People seem downright incapable of the innocent excitement that comes from seeing other people enjoy a piece of solid writing — and this sadly seems unlikely to change, at least until we change the very language we use to describe it, since by calling the activity of people who traffic in links "curation" instead of "sharing" we imbue it with all sorts of hollow importance and circumscribe it as something wholly apart from the selfless and benevolent sharing of knowledge.
The self-described "curator" of the modern day web seeks special recognition for what is nothing more than a pattern of behaviour that distinguishes an individual from those with uncurious, idle minds. Rather than issuing demerits on the latter we're instead being invited — no! implored, rather, via an "actionable code of ethics" — to heap praise upon the former. And I'm sorry, but I refuse to be bullied into giving people credit for shit they're supposed to be doing, especially not when that comes at the price of devaluing the most important object of attribution — original content — by setting it up as just one among a multitude of things deserving of attribution. I don't know what sort of addled reading of Barthes it must've taken to get here — to employ phrases like the "creative and intellectual labour of information discovery" and "a form of authorship" — but the often tortuous act of writing compared with the reading of someone else's writing are two vastly different things, not just simple variations of unicode runes.
Furthermore, Maria Popova was quoted by David Carr today saying that "When we don't honour discovery, we are robbing somebody's time and labour."
Which: Bull. Shit.
People who consider the act of intellectual enrichment to be some sort of currency or property that can be "robbed" have absolutely no business whatsoever telling the rest of us what it means to "honour discovery". And while I hate to be the guy who's like "let's have a look at the etymology!", well, let's do that actually! Because it will at least afford us all the opportunity to be outraged together by this sort of talk.
What Popova calls "discovery" — which in simpler times could've just been called "reading" or "learning" — can be traced back to the Greek root of the word "scholarship", which is derived from "rest", a linguistic heritage which first established knowledge in its time-honoured tradition of being something wholly antithetical to commerce, something invaluable in the truest sense of the term.
And one does great injury to knowledge by assuming it to be merely some exchange value in a zero-sum game.
If people want to be celebrated for being smart or for having exceptional taste that's all fine and good, everyone can go right on congratulating one another in their little mutual admiration societies. But please spare the rest of us all this moralizing on why we should be giving people who share links anywhere near the same amount of credit we afford that singularly special act of original content creation.