Book review: Curation Nation, by Steven Rosenbaum

Quirky insights into the changing internet have their charm, but talking tactics would have been more insightful.

by Margaret Manning
Last Updated: 03 May 2011
Having worked in digital media for 15 years, I've become accustomed to curation without realising it was happening. So much so that I was puzzled for a while as to what this book is about. But, rather than keep you in the same state of suspense, I'll start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, curation is 'the selection of, care for and presentation of the objects entered into a collection, whether that collection is physical (such as items in a museum) or digital (such as entries in Wikipedia)'. I would have given you a definition from the book itself, but I couldn't find one.

Curation Nation is an interesting ramble around many subjects. In one single paragraph, the author moves from ET through Nasa to luxury women's panties - no mean feat. But no matter how interesting the byways, I prefer to trot logically to a conclusion.

The book's premise is that we are living in a world of content overload, driven by the continuous growth of digital content. It quotes Barack Obama as saying 'Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a term of empowerment', and goes on to conclude that the era of overwhelming data requires discipline and new solutions. Both the issue and the premise of a new way of ordering and finding content are almost universally accepted. My frustration is that Steven Rosenbaum did not say how its manipulation is going to affect us, except with the reassurance that curation will come to the rescue. 'As a citizen of Curation Nation,' he says, 'you'll be a causal curator.' Participating in adding content to Facebook makes you a 'productive member of society', which, he adds, 'used to mean you had a job, a car and a family'. I may be a digital evangelist, but this is a step too far for me.

Although I did not get the solutions that I was looking for, a useful and insightful section of the book looks at big trends on the internet. These strongly echo the excellent article in last September's Wired magazine entitled 'The web is dead - long live the internet'. This argued that, two decades after its birth, the world wide web is in decline, as simpler, sleeker services - think apps - are less about the searching and more about the getting. In it, Chris Anderson explains how this paradigm reflects the inevitable course of capitalism, while Michael Wolff explains why the new breed of media titan is forsaking the web for more promising (and profitable) pastures.'

Rosenbaum takes this line of argument further. 'Search is broke,' he asserts. 'It's over. Done. Gone.' Interesting stuff, and for companies struggling to use the internet to create a good website, it's incredibly scary. Sadly, the part of the book that I was looking forward to never appeared, the bit that would describe how we should behave in this environment of content creation, and what tactics to adopt for success with our businesses.

Curation Nation skirts around the concept that businesses will need a content strategy, and that all sorts of businesses, not just media businesses, will need editorial teams in place - although, for Rosenbaum, a content strategist quickly becomes a digital curator.

I had been expecting a work that shone a light onto a subject to which I may be too close to see all the implications. Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, describes it as 'an indispensable guide to the brave new media world'. Yet, although Rosenbaum manages to be charming throughout, I was left puzzled about the meaning and validity of many of his analogies, and slightly irritated by their being there at all.

His last-gasp revelation that his book itself was curated is not a great advertisement for the science of curation. Picture a small-town museum, overfull of objects that bear no relationship to one another, that are charming and around which you can wander on a wet afternoon. In that vision, you have an idea of the style of this book.

Curation Nation contains many insights into the future direction of the internet, about how we will all learn to create and curate content, and how brands will have to think very differently about their communication with consumers, but this is not brought together into the inspirational, riveting read that this subject deserves.

Curation Nation: How to win in a world where consumers are creators

Steven Rosenbaum

McGraw-Hill £19.99

- Margaret Manning is CEO of digital consultancy Reading Room

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