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Is Our Curation Bad?

Miya Tokumitsu explores the meaning and implications of curation in her new TNR article:

… The qualifier “curated,” begins to appear with increasing frequency in published books in the early 1970s, precisely during the era of post-war economic liberalization andThe ‘Me’ Decade, during which, according to Tom Wolfe, it became acceptable and good to spend time “…polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, and doting on it.” (Indeed, in this passage, Wolfe describes the self as akin to a museum object.) The appearance of “curated” in print tracks steadily upward during the individualist, body-sculpting, self-improving, “no such thing as society” 1980s. The great value placed on the individual as the only valid social institution naturally elevated the consequence of previously quotidian things generated by the simple act of living, like lists and opinions. These things began to be worthy of the same white-gloved treatment and cultural esteem once reserved for fine art.

Essential to personalization is the aura of control. Curation of the commonplace not only elevates preference but also implies a sense of order that is determined by the individual. It imparts a sense of self-determination and dominant power much in the manner of 401-k investment portfolios and small-business entrepreneurship. Under neoliberalism, every individual is his own capitalist, his own world-maker. “Freedom” isn’t security in a just society, but the ability to shop—for a healthcare plan on market exchanges, for primary schooling, for stocks in your retirement plan (if you’re lucky enough to have one of those). We’re all masters of our tiny, curated realms.

Tokumitsu considers the ways in which self-curation have become incredibly commonplace on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The curation of the common, meanwhile, can be easily seen on platforms such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and Spotify. You may pin great works of art to your Pinterest board, or listen to Bach on Spotify, but most users find these tools useful to collect blog recipes, home and garden decor ideas, or to discover new pop singles or indie hits.

As the above passage probably hints at, Tokumitsu does not look kindly on our modern patterns of curation—indeed, she writes that “In bestowing great importance to ‘just picking stuff,’ curation in its contemporary, ecumenical sense reinforces many of the personal values promoted by neoliberalism: atomized individualism, the thrall of personalization, aestheticized control, and, of course, consumption-as-authenticity.”

But people have always been curators of the common and quotidian. Before Pinterest, people put together scrapbooks in the 1800s and 1900s, cutting out their favorite images from magazines. Before Spotify, music book publishers put together favorite song collections for performance at social gatherings. Others compiled abridged renditions of classic or popular books for curious readers. And one can’t forget that the personal library is one of the oldest and most widespread methods of curation we’ve used over the centuries.

The main difference, of course, is that private curation used to be exactly that: private. Unless you were a celebrity, your favorite music, book, and style collections were not of interest to the general public. You may have had a wide collection of recipes, gathered from relatives, old friends, and cookbooks—but you wouldn’t have means (or usually desire) to share them with the world. What internet and social media have done are to take our private collections, and make them globally shareable. Tokumitsu writes,

The personalization and creativity connoted by today’s popular understanding of curation also relate to the projection of certain kind of authenticity [sic]—one that is publicly visible and determined by consumption. Hence the eager embrace of “curation” within the spheres of social media and retail shopping. These are the arenas in which we can most easily construct microcosms and publicly projected pastiches of our selves, structured entirely by our own preferences.

Despite the problems with widespread curation, there is also a real need for people to provide such services in the midst of massive creation. Every day, we face an incessant outpouring of news, music, books, and fashions. Within those categories, there are numerous genres, trends, beats, preferences. It is often necessary to help people navigate these swaths of information. The best way to do this, it would seem, would be to provide the populace with knowledgeable experts (and/or enthusiastic amateurs) who can choose worthwhile pieces of information for their attention.

This is what the news is supposed to do, although the growing popularity of preference-based news—picking and choosing who and what you read according to your own personal agenda—is rapidly changing the way in which we read and curate media. If you’re a staunch Tea Party Republican, you may watch Fox News. If you’re an east coast liberal city dweller, you may read Vox. But few will regularly get their news from both. (I should note that many TAC readers break such stereotypes, and enjoy reading what they don’t agree with. I’m always thankful for their input on this and other blogs.)

Tokumitsu makes an important point about the role our desire for control plays in modern curation. This would especially ring true in the obvious self-curation of such platforms as Facebook and Instagram—but it’s also true that all curation contributes to our public persona, the way people perceive us. The fashions and recipes you put on Pinterest, the bizarre tunes you may listen to on Spotify—people begin to see you according to your tastes. The stakes are higher when all curation is public. And this is why, it would seem, we begin curating ourselves: hiding the aspects of ourselves we fear won’t be accepted, ignoring the things we don’t like or agree with, filling our lives instead with all the pretty, affirmative, “nice” things that are most likely to garner support from the people in our social circles.

But truly objective curation can be a gift, when used not for the promulgation of the curator’s persona, but rather for the larger goal of promoting the beautiful, thoughtful, or good. If Tumblr isn’t just a place to make ourselves look cool or creative, but rather a place to conserve or share lovely and useful things, then it serves a good purpose. If Spotify isn’t just a place where you listen to music you want others to see you listening to, but rather a place where you savor treasures old and new, it avoids the pitfalls that Tokumitsu is identifying.

When we curate lists, Pinterest boards, playlists, or other things publicly, it would seem that at least one important question we should ask ourselves is this: are we more concerned about how this or that item makes us look, or about the item itself? Sometimes the best test of such a question is to make our curation completely private, and to see if we delight in it to the same extent that we did before.


about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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