Selective content drives new era of digital curation

When you hear the term “curator,” you may picture a condescending, meticulously dressed, librarian-type person in thick-rimmed glasses. Yet there’s a new breed of curator out there—content curators—and they range from being as well-dressed as a college dean, to as casual as a sweatpants-clad college student.

Instead of their attire, this new breed of archivist and collector is most concerned with the appearance of a website. They select content—news stories, blog posts, videos, even apps—for placement on individual sites, with the goal of making pages appeal to readers whom their publishers (and advertisers) want to attract.

This is different than “content aggregation,” which has long-vexed traditional magazine and newspaper publishers, and is separate from Google News’ content aggregator, which randomly scans the Web for headlines that pertain to what’s happening in the world. Curated digital content is more selective, and it’s a term that is gaining traction. Frankly, when I first heard about “content curation” on the Web, I was taken aback. Digital content is so fleeting, and many stories have a shelf life of mere hours before they get lost among the constantly growing flow of information. Indeed, we miss far more interesting or curious items on the Web than we see.

Curating this content is the art of selectively archiving that fast-moving flow of content by finding the best stuff and making sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

Earlier this year, launched a feature called “curated apps.” The site (which I occasionally write for) encourages its users to become curators, and create lists of apps that they found useful. Results include “Android Apps for the ultimate road trip,” (curated by a user who refers to himself as an amateur fighter and nomad), and the “Top 5 toddler apps” (curated by a mother of three).

“We have over 500 lists for the iPhone alone,” says Appolicious CEO Alan Warms. “It’s a really important part of what we are doing, about getting to the niches that people are interested in. That’s what we are trying to get at.”

Appolicious uses the phrase “app lists” on its main page, but when one clicks on the “lists” tab, the term “curated app lists” appears and users are encouraged to create their own lists.

Besides the self-proclaimed nomads and stay-at-home moms who curate content for social media websites, a more professional approach to—and criticism of—curation is growing.

In a recent column comparing Android apps to those of the iPhone, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote that “for all the controversy about Apple’s app-store gatekeeping, the iPhone store is clearly better curated than the Android store.”

Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps recently noted in an Ars Technica blog post that the iPad would bring a “new era of personal computing that we call ‘Curated Computing’—a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences.”

She compares the iPad to a jukebox, able to run the apps we choose, making each of us a curator of sorts. “Each of these applications is in itself also curated,” Epps says, “since the publisher selects content and functionality that’s appropriate to the form factor—just as a museum curator selects artwork from a larger collection to exhibit in a particular gallery space.”

For publishers, curation is about engaging readers—keeping them on a website by filling the site with relevant content. With this in mind, digital content curation needs to be more than a collection of links; effective curation is a smart, organized way of archiving and sharing related information.

The use of digital curation is nothing new: We have entire buildings scattered across the country that are filled with computer servers to make sure all the pages we put out there (including all those salacious e-mails that lawyers like to use in court) never go away.

Still, the real trick to content curation is picking through all the data and making sense of it. This process might not need years of post-graduate study to perform correctly, but certainly requires an educated look and the savvy to know what should stay, and what can be allowed float off into the abyss of cyberspace.