Is Curation a Cure or Culprit? The UK’s Michael Bhaskar on ‘Super-Abundance’

In Feature Articles by Mark Piesing

‘For publishers,’ says author and publisher Michael Baskhar, curation is ‘about the value of what we do in a world where there is, frankly, far too much to read.’
Image - iStockphoto: Grafner

Image – iStockphoto: Grafner

Facebook has strenuously refuted this month’s allegations of political bias—human or algorithmic—in its Facebook Trending Topics output. Mark Zuckerberg  writes on his site, “We have rigorous guidelines that do not permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or the suppression of political perspectives.” And it all keeps getting tangled with that term “curation,” once the province mainly of art-museum specialists. Curation is the subject of publisher Michael Bhaskar’s forthcoming book. We talk to him for some context. — Porter Anderson

By Mark Piesing | @MarkPiesing

‘Co-Dependent and Compatible’
Gizmodo published Michael Nunoz’ article, Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News on May 9. The allegations laid out in the piece are that human curators—who manage what appears on the Trending Topics module seen in the upper right of the site—suppressed stories of interest to conservative readers.

“As soon as you get into this situation where you have too much stuff, the value proposition changes from being about producing more things to curating what you have got.”Michael Bhaskar

Publishing Perspectives caught up with Michael Bhaskar in Oxford to discuss curation and its various implications. Author of the forthcoming Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess (publishing June 2 in the UK from Little, Brown’s Piatkus Books), Bhaskar is one of the trio of co-founders (with Iain Millar and Nick Barreto) of Canelo, the determinedly digital-first house that will observe its first year in operation in mid-July.

Bhaskar is also visiting researcher at the Oxford Brookes International Centre for Publishing. He is also author of the 2013 release from Anthem Books, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network.

In sales material for Bhaskar’s book, curation is defined as “the art of selecting useful information to form meaningful collections.” And we start our interview with Bhaskar against the backdrop of this month’s uproar around Facebook.

Publishing Perpsectives: Michael, curation is very much in the news at the moment. What do you think about the news that Facebook uses human curators?

Michael Bhaskar

Michael Bhaskar

Michael Bhaskar: Facebook is fascinating and I wish I had been able to include some of this in my book.

There is an argument that one of the reasons why Facebook has been so successful is that its algorithmically curated news feed made it more manageable than Twitter’s real-time news feed.

It has been said that Facebook users would be exposed to 1,500 items of new content every day without the algorithm, compared to about 300 with it.

Now Facebook is in danger of losing trust as a curator—and it took them a long time to earn it in the first place.

PP: So what is curation? And why not just call it gatekeeping?

MB: Well, curation, as a word, became popular because we just didn’t have a good word for the kind of patterns of selecting and arranging that are increasingly common in our digital culture. Gatekeeping never caught on in the same way that curation has. You don’t gate-keep your playlist on Spotify. You curate it. You might say a shop is a curated space, you wouldn’t say it was a gatekeeper space even if that is partly what is happening,

I have to say that I’m still slightly agnostic about the word itself, as it can sound a bit pretentious—like an attempt to elevate a basic everyday activity to a higher level where it shouldn’t be. But this ship has sailed. Curation is the word that people use and that’s how English works.

PP: Is there a bigger story behind this?

Curation coverMB: We’re living in an age of super-abundance, in which we have too much stuff and too many choices. In the past two years humanity has produced more data than in the rest of human history combined, and this rate of production is still growing by 60 percent a year.

This age began in the Industrial Revolution and has accelerated until so many markets have reached the point of saturation. As soon as you get into this situation where you have too much stuff, the value proposition changes from being about producing more things to curating what you have got.

PP: Isn’t this a rather #FirstWorldProblem?

MB: Yes, curation is a hashtagged “first world problem.” The problem is that if you live in that “first world” it’s a problem that people face. We live in an economy in which value has shifted from production to selection. This doesn’t mitigate the fact that there are large swathes of the world where people have real problems.

PP: Should we be worried by the kind of algorithmic curation that Facebook is alleged by some to be doing?

MB: This is the big question. Certainly, many people worry that machine curation is elbowing out the humans. Yet in my view this is too binary. In reality, the two approaches are co-dependent and compatible.

When you look at huge data sets there’s no way you could have anything other than algorithmic curation as there is too much stuff. When you’re looking for something personal, then it’s the human touch that people seem to want.

“It’s all about expertise and valuing it…Expertise shouldn’t be a dirty word. I wish I said more about this in the book.”Michael Bhaskar

I’m seeing an interesting pattern emerging here of machine-driven and human-driven curation working together like you see on Spotify…Interesting playlists curated by music experts sit side-by-side with those curated by machine.

I don’t think it will ever be one or the other. This kind of blended approach is usually overlooked.

PP: Do you think we will have to pay for a premium “human curated” service in the future?

MB: This is a difficult one. At the moment it is normally folded into a business as a service.

PP: If curation is the future, then do you think the users should be able to click on an icon to find out how curation is taking place?

MB: The key word is trust. I don’t think people need to know all the criteria and mechanisms curation is working on, but they have to trust the curator. Then, as Facebook may be about to find out, if that trust is lost it’s hard to win back

PP: If trust is the issue, shouldn’t the process of accountability be open and accountable?

“I firmly believe that in many ways the most important thing a publisher does is to say no.”Michael Bhaskar

MB: There isn’t a straightforward answer. Curation is about taking things that have become very complicated and making them simple again. So why make it complicated again?

What’s more, a lot of good curation comes from expertise. Experts have intuitive knowledge about what is going to work that is hard to explain.

PP: Isn’t this this a rather elitist view?

MB: It’s all about expertise and valuing it. This person has expertise so I will believe their choices are the best ones. It is elitist, but it’s necessary. Expertise shouldn’t be a dirty word. I wish I said more about this in the book.

There are two business models for curation that can best be illustrated by scientific publishing. You have a model where the world’s leading experts curate the content for a journal like Nature. Then there are a whole new suite of publications that are devolving the role of the curator to the whole of the scientific community. In this model, everyone is a curator.

PP: How is Canelo actually planning to use curation in the future?

Content Machine coverMB: Well, we are really careful about what we commission. I firmly believe that in many ways the most important thing a publisher does is to say no. This makes for difficult choices at times, but we have to believe in everything that we do. Why would we do it otherwise?

We do have some interesting ideas about how to build curation into our platform in the future. We know this idea of personal curation is going to be very important for the direction of the company. We know that it will enable us to grow in a way that is meaningful for us rather than scaling manically.

PP: What do you think our readers should take away from our discussion?

MB: What this Facebook controversy shows is how charged the whole question has become.

Curation is not a new thing, but the degree to which it is happening now, and the sense that the whole thing is a black box that we can’t open, is what panics people. They felt they understood how information was curated in the past and could work it. But that’s not true anymore.

For publishers it’s about the value of what we do in a world where there is, frankly, far too much to read.

If publishers aren’t curators, we’re nothing. But luckily we are.

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist,, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.