Scaling the walls of personalised curation

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Curation is the art of telling a story.  As soon as a piece of content attracts a title, comment or reference to another work, it has been curated (Shott, 1996). This essay will argue that online, curation is too often used as a tool of expedient initiation and personalisation, which leads to data lockout, and walled information ecologies that are hard to navigate. This paper will discuss the pitfalls of allowing the content we interact with, produce and consume to be curated for us, rather than curating it for ourselves.

Nardi and O’day define Information Ecologies as a network of fluid, divergent systems that are inhabited by individuals and tools (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). Our personal experiences of Information Ecologies often involve corporate or cooperative environments were groups of people are served by a set of documents and information (Dumbill, 2011) An information ecology usually occurs in an environment of human-to-human interaction involving technology that maintains or facilitates a system. The term is often used in reference to the practise of sharing skills, information, knowledge and data within a network of people, facilitating successfully integration of individuals and new tools into the community’s shared traditions, habits and core values (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). A successfully functioning Information Ecology fosters the use, and navigation of a system (Nardi & O’Day, 1999); “Humans help other humans use technology. Simple things are done with simple tools” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). The technological aspects of an information ecology are integrated. Therefore, growth and success within an information ecology is achieved through evolutionary application of the tools used within the system, and not technological upgrade. In information ecologies technology is used to serve and meet the needs of the environment, rather than to drive it. “An ecology responds to local environmental changes and local interventions. An ecology is a place that is scaled to individuals” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). The process that enables an ecology to be scaled, and allows individual needs to be served by the same system, as well as serving the crowd as a whole, is curation (Shott, 1996).


Curation is the art of telling a story (2011). Nardi and O’day (1999) describe curation, or the curators within an information ecology as “keystone species” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999)  within  the environment. “Some people need keystone species to translate, focus and direct their information and knowledge gathering, although it is possible to access, understand and relate this information without the need of curation” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). On the World Wide Web the interconnected nature of online information ecologies allows us to create, collaborate and curate our own content. The links between websites, communities and documents online turn the “web’s content into something of greater value: an interconnected information space” (Berners-Lee, 2010). Although in 2010, as quoted by (Geissler, 2010 p.140) Haig Armen noted that: “people don’t want to curate their own content for themselves”, and argued that current audiences are daunted by the huge amount of content available to them through varied channels  (Armen 2010 & Geissler, 2010). Armen (2010) also says the strength of this desire for curated content is evident in the amount people “willing to pay money for that filtering of content” (Armen, 2010). “There is continued value in the careful packaging and presentation of  content, and more than that, expert, inspired organisation of materials creates value where it might appear – to the unwashed masses – that none exists” (Geissler, 2010 p.140). Individuals are not only seeking services to curate the content they consume, but also to curate the content they produce (Berners-Lee, 2010). One example of a service that curates our personally produced data and content is Facebook.


In the pursuit constructing our identities online, many internet users have sought the services of Facebook to act as a “keystone species” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999) to curate their journey through the ecology of socially produced media. This type of curation “has lead to our information being owned by others” (Dumbill, 2011) and has limited our ability to share the identity we have created of ourselves with others online (Dumbill, 2011). “Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web” (Berners-Lee, 2010). Facebook’s curation of our data and digital lives helps the uninitiated take part in the shared traditions of constructing identity online, but the information and data entered is not interconnected with the rest of the online information network (Berners-Lee, 2010), it remains within the confines of the Facebook ecology. The price for Facebook’s curation of a users’ data and digital output is the limitations it imposes on them. “The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service – but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not” (Berners-Lee, 2010). By quarantining users’ personal data the diversity and strength of the information ecology is enhanced, according to Nardi and O’day (1999). “Different species take advantage of different ecological niches, which provide natural opportunities to grow and succeed” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). Although Facebook in this instance, has not curated a niche within the ecology but instead has created a separate ecology all together (Berners-Lee, 2010). Their users, rather than adding to the greater knowledge and data network of the World Wide Web, are allowing Facebook to curate them a personalised web presence separate from the greater ecology of the Web.

Personalised filters or curators like Facebook invite us to feed more of our personal data into their walled ecologies, to better curate our online experiences. This system of data in exchange for curation offers problematic outcomes because every user is offered a vastly different experience of the Web, dependent on the data they have entered or the connections they make (Pariser, 2011). Eli Pariser (2011) calls these personalised ecologies “filter bubbles” (Pariser, 2011). An experience of the Web were the content that is curated for us is so personalised it effectively locks out the rest of the ecology (Pariser, 2011). Instead of individual users experiencing the whole Web, they are now  exposed to what the algorithm (constructed from the data they enter) curates for them. Berners-Lee (2011) describes this experience of the Web as an ‘echo chamber’, where the content curated for us to consume and interact with only echoes our current experiences (Berners-Lee, 2011). “You will never understand as a Yankee why the Red Sox were so ‘cachuffed’ to beat you a couple of years ago. As an Israeli you will never understand why you’re upsetting the Palestinian people” (Berners-Lee 2011). This filtration of Web content not only controls what content users are exposed to, but can also be used to target corporate messages and advertising.


Google for instance is no longer just in the business of searching, since 2009 it has become a curator of personalised content (Pariser, 2011). Now with a Google account attached to your search queries the search engine is able to tailor the results it returns to your browser based on your age, gender, physical location, internet search history and many other deciding factors (Pariser, 2010). This personalised curation of Web content and information ecologies is the perfect vehicle for corporate messages and targeted advertising. Search results that are targeted to individual users rather than the terms entered, allows online curators like Google to sell advertising space and page ranking based on an individual’s personal data. The problem with targeted search results is that users not only give Google control over what content they view and interact with, but they also allow the company to control what they don’t interact with and see (Pariser, 2010). In this instance Google is actually using curation to lock out certain data it deems irrelevant to the user, moulding the story, distorting the reality and creating a wall dividing the individual user and the greater ecology of the World Wide Web (Pariser, 2010). This type of ecology cannot be seen as a true information ecology because of the lack of interconnectivity, fluidity and divergence within the system. Instead this type of curation leads to a personalised ecology that only echoes what data we have entered to represent and serve us.


To meet the demands of specific algorithmic demographics and gain access to the “walled gardens” (Praiser, 2010) that filter bubbles create, individuals and corporations that create and maintain Web presences need produce content and data that is easy to replicate, duplicate and tailor to each target demographic. Content is now being created with specific audiences in mind. Instead of creating fluid content that is interconnected to the greater information ecology, many individual and corporate web entities have created Web presences that have become focused on curating and tailoring experiences for the individual rather than the crowd (Praiser, 2011). The trend of producing personalized web content has gained momentum as more people begin to access web content from applications on mobile devices rather than their web browsers. In the United States of America alone, a ComScore survey reported that 6.8 percent of web traffic originated from a “non-computer” device, with more than 116 million people accessing web content from their mobile phones (Musil, 2010). Flipboard, an application for the iPhone that personalizes news and information for its users, curates the news and information it feeds to you based on what has been shared and made popular amongst your social media networks. The realities of this type of curation are that a user from America using this type of mobile application to access a personalised news may get a very different view of the world than an Australian using the same service; Different advertising, different stories, even different layouts (Praiser, 2010). On these sites, content is curated for the individual, thus continuing the reach of the wall users have (sometimes unwittingly) built around them. This personalization of the web creates multiple barriers for producers and maintainers of web presences (Berners-Lee 2011). Offering a one size fits all platform can often lead producers of web presences to editorialise and curate their content in such a way that it is able to break through the barriers that personalized filters put in place and become a part of that separate ecologies culture.


In 2010 Wikileaks entered the environment of highly curated Web content for the purposes of mass dissemination, when the site released a video, leaked by an unnamed source, which was editorialised with a title of “Collateral Murder” (McDermott, 2011). The video showed a black hawk helicopter opening fire on Iraqi civilians, and stands alone as a piece of media that is able to polarise all that view it (Fidler & Fowler, 2011). The aim of the sensationalist headline was to lure a greater number of users to the site, then what would be considered the normal demographic interested in such media, which is highly contentious, anonymously sourced and paints a less than flattering  picture of American military involvement in Iraq (Fidler & Fowler, 2011). Curating this video in such a way has meant it has crossed over into individual ecologies of internet users and has seen Wikileaks become part of their cultures of use. In this way Wikileaks is able to invade the filter-bubble and the site validity and authority.


While it is inevitable that some amount of curation is necessary to maintain a growing and relevant Web presence, due to the large amounts of content that is available for dissemination, curators have a responsibility to their audience to not only show them what the data suggests they want to see, but should also include what they ‘need’ to see, or know. This essay has argued that the utopian ideal of the internet, being egalitarian in access and democratic in its dissemination of a myriad of views and opinions, cannot be achieved without providing an avenue to not only titillate, communicate and entertain, but to inform and foster debate amongst users.






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