Solving information overload: the role of manual content curation

There’s an information overload just on articles about information overload, so you might be reluctant to spend time reading another one. However, Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance by Maria Popova is the best commentary I’ve seen on the topic in a long time.

The article starts off by explaining the root cause for the problem we find ourselves in: the concept of “rare” largely goes away if all information is available digitally:

W’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information “” not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

The consequence is that it’s now so much harder to know what pieces of information are worth our time. Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean we should access it. Maria goes on to explain why editors (or content curators) are so crucial if we want to solve this problem:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

Information curators are that necessary cross-pollinator between accessibility and access, between availability and actionability, guiding people to smart, interesting, culturally relevant content that “rots away” in some digital archive, just like its analog versions used to in basement of some library or museum or university.

I do want to add a thought on the idea of “automated curation” – what sites like are trying to do (you know, those tweets proclaiming that “The [clever name] Daily is Out!”). I simply don’t think effective automated curation will ever be possible. I agree with Angie King on

My experience with just proves the importance of curation over aggregation. Without an editorial eye overseeing the publication of my page, the content loses value. I actually prefer just paging through my Twitter stream over trying to make sense of the no-context, automatically generated list of junk that displays on my page.

In a great piece called The language of data: fear + words, Randall Snare explains why automated curation is so difficult:

Emails ““ and other written things ““ aren’t just filled with semantic meaning, but with subtext. Algorithms treat words like the basic components of language, while the actual basic components are often hidden ““ elements like association, nuance, emotion and humour.

Which brings us back to the need for humans – call them editors, call them people who read a lot, call them whatever you want – to help guide us to the information that might interest us. I’d go so far as to say that our ability to grow and learn depends on it.