While exploring the new Inside.com app, which collects content from a variety of news organizations and summarizes stories in a maximum of 300 characters, I wasn’t surprised to see the term “curators” in its App Store description.
Curation’s a lofty term for summarizing other journalists’ reporting — even for high-level summarizing from multiple sources, which doesn’t seem to be Inside’s M.O. So let’s call it what it is, even if the term comes with some baggage: aggregation.
Isn’t that what we used to alternately praise HuffPost for doing with brilliant regard for its audience and accuse HuffPost of doing with reckless disregard for purveyors of original content?
The folks behind another newish news aggregator app, Circa, have fiercely defended its process against the way I just described it since the initial wave of reviews and news about it. With Circa, the first instinct from media folks was to label it an aggregator. Not so with Inside, which, ironically, seems to require much less work from editors than Circa does. So why this silly, high-minded “curation” word?
To further explore this definitional change, I pulled my hefty American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition (2011) off the shelf and aggregated some definitions:
curator n. One who manages or oversees, as the administrative director of a museum collection or a library
Aggregator, for some good reasons, has apparently become a dirty word since my dictionary was published. So now it seems there’s a tendency to elevate the act of summarizing other people’s reporting into an art form that sounds more benign and skillful than aggregation. Curation’s the hot buzz word now for human-powered story collecting, and aggregator is mostly how we describe Google News and its robotic peers.
(Re/code’s Peter Kafka refers to Inside as “a mobile app/site which summarizes news stories in 300 characters or less,” and the company’s founder, Jason Calacanis, doesn’t recoil from the term “aggregate” when Kafka uses it in a video interview.)
In rejecting the term “curation” I don’t mean to suggest editors at Inside aren’t providing some value add (def: n. A business euphemism for “the reason I’d like you to think I’m useful.”). Seriously, though: Inside allows users to keep track of dozens of wide-ranging topics with pretty slick navigation.
And, while most media commentators seem to be comparing Inside to Circa, it actually more closely resembles customizable, automated aggregators like Zite and Google News, despite the fact that every story has a human editor. The 300-character summaries hardly offer more information than TV news tickers do, so I’m not worried that Inside’s a blood-sucking leech. You really have to click or tap through to original sources if you want to get anything substantive out of Inside.
(Circa, meanwhile, offers such comprehensive overviews of stories that there’s rarely reason to visit the sources it cites, but at least its method of assembling stories requires some significant storytelling chops.)
My point: When reviewing the latest hot news aggregator that promises to save us from the overwhelming pace of content in 2014, let’s refrain from using terms like “curation” that sound like PR speak. Aggregation isn’t always bad, but automatically framing unoriginal reporting as curation helps these news middlemen avoid debate about whether we should be troubled by their methods.
Related: You Are Not a Curator, You Are Actually Just a Filthy Blogger (The Awl)