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Behind the Curator's Code

Maria Popova warns against failing to build a true information society

The Curator's Code was recently unveiled. The system aims to codify the "attribution of discovery in curation as a currency of the information economy", which would honour the "creative and intellectual labor of information discovery by making attribution consistent and codified, celebrating authors and creators, and also respecting those who discover and amplify their work". In pure practical terms, the scheme provides new symbols for 'via' and 'hat tip', which link back to the Curator's Code website, although the site notes these are optional and its main aim is to encourage more attribution across the web.

From the start, the system proved divisive. Writer Harry Marks enthusiastically embraced the scheme, but Gizmodo's Matt Langer and Marco Arment considered it misguided. Arment argued readers "aren't going to learn what the symbols mean", complained the distinction between them was unnecessary, and also reckoned the wrong problem was being solved. The real problem, he said, is that too many posts replace the need for the source link.

The bigger picture

We spoke to Curator's Code creator Maria Popova, to ask her about the scheme. She said Arment raised valid technical points, but missed some fundamental big-picture ideas: "He erroneously suggested we're trying to mandate the unicode symbols, but we don't care whether people use these or old-school 'via' or natural-language hot-links. The reason for the unicodes is that, under the system we're proposing, using them online helps propagate the ethos of the project. The characters are hot-linked to the Curator's Code website, so clicking them leads a curious reader to the site, which articulates the ethos of attribution. This is the bigger point and main message – why attribution matters, not how to attribute in technical terms."

Popova also told us she profoundly disagrees with the suggestion discovery doesn't matter. "I've written and spoken at length, both for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab and elsewhere, about my opposition to the word 'curation', which has become vacant and inadequate. But I fundamentally believe the act at the heart of 'curation' – a drive to find the interesting, meaningful, and relevant amidst the vast maze of overabundant information, creating a framework for what matters in the world and why – is an increasingly valuable form of creative and intellectual labour, and recognising this warrants a conversation."

The importance of attribution

According to Popova, much of the problem stems from people not understanding why content should be attributed, and she offered a couple of examples. One is the blurring of the editorial and curatorial, for example exploring archives and writing an article with historical background and present-day cultural context: "Using – curating, if you will – existing content, but authoring an article around them and contextualising them for a contemporary audience who would have never otherwise discovered them or come to understand their significance. [The source material] is not original, but the discussion and context is labour". The second instance is the role of the curator as a "mash-up artist of sorts, pulling together disparate sources to better illustrate a timely topic".

This mixture of selection, juxtaposition and editorial is labour. Popova told us this can offer "tremendous cultural value", and cited the Middle Ages 'florilegium' form of manuscript: "Florilegia were collections of excerpts an author would mash-up and splice together to better illustrate a topic, doctrine, or idea. None of the text was 'original', but florilegia had a point of view greater than the sum of their parts. They were among the earliest recorded examples of remix culture, and of 'curation' as a form of authorship." In a sense, Popova's project aims to assist people to do the same online, and she told us if we fail to recognise those who "author our intellectual and creative direction by pointing us to the rich and meaningful", we have "failed to build a true information society".

Context is what matters

Harry Marks of Curious Rat also spoke to us about Curator's Code, and seemed surprised at the negativity surrounding the project: "I admire what it's trying to achieve – a uniform way of displaying attribution on blogs and news sites. There are so many horrible ways in which current sites attribute their stories [and] having a (hopefully) widely-accepted attribution method is healthy for this industry."

Marks told us that while he agreed with Arment and Langer's general points on the larger issue "pertaining to outright theft of content", including Arment's rallying against aggregation, over-quoting and rewriting, his take is different regarding the use of unicode symbols. "It may not work for some people, and no-one is forcing anyone to comply with some new standard passed down from an imaginary God of Online Writing, but I find it disingenuous to declare something an abject failure without having used it first," he said. "Arment argues no-one will learn what the symbols mean, but they will if you use them. You can educate readers, or 'force' them to research the symbols' meaning on their own. The symbols are clean and easily readable, and fit in fine among the rest of my content. And as I wrote in my piece, 'Hat Tip and Via', if my use of these symbols hinders your ability to read my site, you have bigger problems to deal with. The content is what matters."

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