Content Curation versus Content Aggregation: A Velvet Mr. T Painting

Two posts brought to my attention the discussion starting to take root about the worlds of content aggregation versus content curation.

A post on the Poynter blog back in early October points to the work of journalists engaging in curation via Twitter as a way of “filtering the signal from the noise.” The phrase used was “curation is the new aggregation.”

A more recent post on the blog by Roger Hart delves more into the world of content curation in a broader sense, stating that it is a bit of a flavor-of-the-month. I would disagree with that sentiment, having discussed this for years.

My experience with curation is more specific.

Daily, and sometimes twice daily, it is my job to draw from a set pool of content, radio programs’ arts and entertainment segments, and publish them into a CMS with text and audio. There is even a daily podcast, my pride and joy, the PRI: Arts & Entertainment podcast.

Over the past few years, publishing content in this manner makes me a curator of sorts. Not an aggregator. And here is why.

Curation goes one step beyond aggregation by adding an active, ongoing editorial component.

Curation and aggregation are similar in but a few ways. They both want to take lots of content and put it in a place [framework, feed, database, etc.] and they both seek to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Most importantly, they both require a strategy. Why is this content being put together? Who will use it? How will they use it? Are they getting it somewhere else right now? What are the staffing impacts? What are the potential outcomes?

Imagine if the Minneapolis Institute of Art populated their museum based only on aggregation. The people in charge would have noted that the above velvet Mr. T metadata indicated it was a painting, an original, from the 20th century, and possibly placed it next to the Van Gogh or Mondrian. All automatically.

With aggregation the velvet Mr. T painting might end up in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in a totally un-ironic or un-post-modern way.  Aggregation, why would you do that?

  • Aggregation is automated
  • Aggregation collects content based on criteria in the form of metadata or keywords
  • Criteria can be adjusted, but remain static otherwise
  • Follows a preset frequency of publishing [as available, weekly, etc.]

Sure, this scenario is unlikely to unfold, but I set it out there to illustrate the point: aggregation excludes the important, active, and ongoing editorial approval from the process of gathering content.

Aggregation has its place. It is easy to set and forget. It requires considerably less staff resources. With carefully selected criteria and sources, it may actually serve the purpose you seek.

There is much more to effective curation than putting similar stuff in a single place.

There are contextual cues that no amount of keywords or metadata can surface.  Sentiment, branding, and time frame issues: a raw aggregating apparatus is blind to them all. Not to mention the fact that the more open aggregation schemes can be gamed in all sorts of bad ways.

Aggregators may have curatorial aspirations. If they could have the same refined output as curation, they likely would. However, that would require more oversight, turning into something else: curation.

So. What does curation look like, then?

  • Curation is, in part, a manual task
  • Starts with sources to parse
  • Evaluates content individually based on established editorial criteria
  • Weights content based on context, current events, branding, sentiment, etc.
  • Publishes approved content on appropriate schedule

Again, both aggregation and curation can be bad ideas unless there is a workable content strategy in place.

For a good example of a great curatorial strategy, look no further than the true home of the velvet Mr. T, The Velveteria Museum in Portland, OR:

[velvet Mr. T image courtesy of Flickr user chwy (CC: by-nc-sa)]

8 thoughts on “Content Curation versus Content Aggregation: A Velvet Mr. T Painting

  1. Thanks for stating this so clearly Clinton!

    Obviously this distinction applies to much more than visual content. At IssueLab (where we archive nonprofit research on social issues) we often find ourselves straddling these two kinds of activity and have ended up both curating AND aggregating.

    The good news is that we recognize these as separate kinds of activities that build on the same raw material but require different strategies and approaches.

    So our bimonthly “CloseUps” are curated, whereas our collection as a whole is aggregated. Both of these activities are much needed by the nonprofit sector and we will continue to do both. (We also offer site users ways to curate their own research collections while giving search engines ways to better cull research collections based on more accurate metadata – assigned by humans.)

    Hmmmm, is culling curating or aggregating? 🙂

    Gabi Fitz

  2. Thanks for reading, Gabi.

    You are quite right to point out that curation versus aggregation applies to more than visual content.

    The key is in your second paragraph. Recognizing that they are two distinct activities requiring separate strategies is a victory in itself.

    It sounds like your version of culling uses a bit of both, to good effect.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Clinton. You captured exactly the essence of curation, how to do it the right way, and how to showcase (and communicate) the value.

    What I’m currently wrestling with is the whole idea of context vs community. Going to a museum instills a sense of community, in that I as a consumer am experiencing the same things millions of other people have experienced, through the collection, positioning, and selection of “content.” However, accessing content via an application or digital interface is perceived as more intimate, customized, and personal. The community aspect of curation is important, but so is the contextual, “mind-reading” element. If I access a movie collection titled “Vintage Comedies” and I see stuff that, in my reality, is neither vintage nor a comedy, I’m going to place less trust in my curators and the value of the curation, in my mind, will go down. And if I’m paying for content, I’ll probably be frustrated and annoyed.

    Any thoughts on how to reconcile (or start to, at least) this community vs context issue? I can’t seem to get myself to a meaningful position on this…


    Deb Gelman

  4. Thanks for your comment, Deb!

    You bring up a interesting point.

    Without the context or framework of a larger content strategy, both curation and aggregation can fall flat. Why are we collecting this content? For whom? A strong editorial curation component will keep the context in mind. Does “Vintage Comedy” mean the Marx Brothers or the Blues Brothers? Both are probably relevant to their communities of fans, but serve decidedly different contexts.

    With all of the talk of curation, this is one of the most significant points: editorial. The role of the editor in this scenario should be to serve a given community within the context that brings that group together.

    The hypothetical situation of “Vintage Comedies” is an apt one. This plays out every day, and the curatorial editors have a lot on the line. They run the very real risk of their community members finding them irrelevant. However, as the unsatisfied walk away, others may be introduced to the community and find exactly what they are seeking.

    Where all of this gets interesting is in places like the Netflix recommendation engine or the Pandora music service. People like films or songs for reasons other than the ones easily tagged or categorized.

  5. This was an interesting post and I learned a lot – thanks. However, isn’t online content curation really just the digital equivalent of what a print magazine editor does every day of his or her life – create an editorial strategy and then gather material from a variety of sources – writers, news wires, other media platforms – to deliver against that reader-focused strategy? Unless I’m wildly off base here or missing something, content curation hardly seems like a new concept to me.
    From a 30,000-foot view, I do believe, however, that the successful content creators of the future are going to combine professional editorial content with selected aggregated and “curated” content and socially generated material. Many of the aggregated content sites we’re seeing right now are pretty cold and soul-less experiences because of the lack of a core editorial focus.
    The same holds true for community. Communities are built on participation and participation is built on passion. Passion is specific not general. Therefore, the more specific and focused your content, the more robust your community will be.
    You can read more opinion here:

  6. Four years later…, voices of sustainability is a good example for your of aggregation combined with curation to build a collection. In this case, around voices of sustainability. Now over 1,000. We built a content management system to do aggregation as well as allow us to add content manually. Take a look. Ruth Ann

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