Gerrit Visser has been digitally curating content since “just after the internet was invented” in 1996. Curation has come a long way and today he’s curating on using smart knowledge networks — people in the know who can be trusted.

There are many faces to Gerrit Visser: digital curator, blogger at SmartMobs and thinker at Brainstorms (virtual communities set up by Howard Rheingold), expert on knowledge management and learning, and nomadic worker. He has a breadth of insight and experience that can’t be captured in one interview. So when he talked to from home in Drenthe, the Netherlands, it was mostly about the future of curation… although other topics sneaked in.

To kick off, what do you find most exciting and inspiring about the internet today?

Exciting: the growth of ‘social search’ where people look for what their peers think, rather than marketing messages. This will more and more influence major decisions — especially buying decisions. And the explosion of the mobile internet, which is going to happen in 2012 despite the financial crisis.

Inspiring: The breakdown of counter-productive hierarchies, the ability to connect and interact, and access to information by all.

What do you do as a digital curator?

Rohit Bhargava defined a curator as someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares information resources. The arab-revolution Daily is an example: I collate breaking news on the Egyptian revolution through finding trusted eyewitness tweeps (Twitter users) on the ground and distribute it daily through

You were curating long before it became a trend…

It started in 1996 shortly after the internet was invented!

At the time, I was a researcher at KPN, the main Dutch telecom operator, working on developing internet services. My job title was ‘Industry Watcher’. We studied press announcements and the market introductions of internet services from competing international providers. By filtering the news, we learned about enabling technologies and business models. We archived these newsbits in a database called the Lego Box and they were eventually used to bring new internet services to market. Several colleagues told me I had a special ability to filter industry news… to this very day I am grateful to them because that work provided the basis for my digital curation skills.

What do you see as the potential for digital curation?

I agree with Steven Rosenbaum when he says in Curation Nation that curating may evolve into two main roles, similar to a museum director and museum curator:

  • the strategist who defines the digital ecosystem and long-term plan
  • the curator who actively grows the content, harvesting from what is created by their team and the community.

I think the curator (not the strategist) will have four main roles:

  1. Searching, filtering and selecting content to become a taste-maker for the target audience.
  2. Providing curatorial leadership to help other workers within an organization understand what makes valuable content for the brand — so they can be enlisted to create and maintain content based on these evolving criteria.
  3. Spotting trends, and feeding these to the strategists who will use them to help define future direction.
  4. Distributing — identifying channels and fine-tuning them.

Steve says “we are all curators” but I am a bit skeptical that just anyone can call themselves a professional digital curator.

Interviewer’s note: I am not sure I agree with this. Can’t people learn to curate? Readers, have your say!

Where do automation and human filters meet?

The human element is key. Our major decisions are often based on the opinions of people we trust. This means social networks and human curation will grow in importance.

That said, today’s tools facilitate how we interact and become mutually supportive. They give the curator the means to become a true specialist through organizing streams of information in a way that can be easily filtered and distributed.

Instead of being worried for their jobs, information workers should embrace the tools’ capabilities and become thought leaders in how to make them productive. It is the intelligent use of modern tools that help us to do a better job.

I believe that the most refined filter is not the individual but the network they are engaged with. Knowledge resides in the network.

According to Robin Good, the future of the social web will be driven by content curators, often acting as citizen editors, publishing highly valuable compilations of content created by others.

In time, they will bring more utility and order to the social web. They will help give organizations and companies a point of view that can connect them with customers – creating an entirely new dialogue based on valued content rather than just brand-created marketing messages.

I can relate to the conviction of the staff that people (and not machines) are the ones qualified to curate the content that matters most.

What do you find useful about

Being able to identify whose knowledge is most useful to you. The ability to sort out the most knowledge-productive tweets in Twitter streams, and to read them as a personalized newspaper, is especially useful. It enables me to curate all these papers from the best human resources in a specialized field:

Where should someone begin curating?

First step is to decide on the boundaries of your topic. From there search for the thought leaders — authors or other trusted sources. Follow their suggested tweeps. The curated lists that specialists share on Twitter are great sources of knowledge-productive streams. Filter them and be critical.

Also use already existing Paper.lis and the search function on the website — these can surface good resources. This way you build a list of the people to follow. The ranking of news I entrust to the clever algorithm behind the technology from SmallRivers. They do a great job.

What value does curation add to breaking news?

Curators may add to the democratization of the news where traditional media can be very biased. By systematically monitoring the tweets of influential Egyptians involved in the revolution and publishing them in The arab-revolution Daily I found a powerful way to distribute the reports as developments occurred and as the revolution evolved in Tahrir Square. This was mentioned in Trouw, a leading Dutch newspaper.

On the curation site I curate daily news about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I don’t take a personal stand on this and objectively aim to balance the pros and cons.

Let’s talk about your other passions. First: coworking

Bernie and Gerrit, by Roseanne DeKoeven.

Fundamental notions of coworking and collaboration have become institutionalized in business models. I believe that such participation-based models have the potential to change the business world forever as long as trust and respect are maintained as the most important values. A slogan on The CoWorking Institute site, where I work with my good friend Bernie DeKoven, puts it this way: “Profit from each others’ success and work together as equals.”

 You’re also passionate about nomadic working

Nomadic computing is a new paradigm in the use of computer and communications. It gives users independence of location, of motion and of platform, with widespread access to remote files, systems and services. I’m a nomadic worker because I can work and live just about anywhere I am connected to the Internet.

I can access and create information across different devices, networks, and locations, and that makes me a happy member of a workforce without space or time boundaries –efficient and effective.

Where are you heading now in your nomadic life?

It would be great to be able to make a living as a professional content curator. That could be in different roles, like assignments to keep track of developments in a specific field or to train and mentor others in how to apply practical curation skills.

I have learned that the most important things that happened in my life were not the things I planned or grabbed, but rather the things that occurred in relationship to others. Losing my job for economic reasons taught me to avoid the pitfalls of living in the past or trying to live in the future. I am grateful for every day and the opportunities that arise. Positive thinking and good faith help me to move forward and enjoy the things that sometimes occur totally unexpectedly. It is about the people. I am thankful for the friends I have in the physical realm as well as in the virtual world.

Gerrit on the ten people who inspire him

  1. Howard Rheingold more or less invented online communities and explored this experience in his seminal book, Tools for Thought. He described early on what revolutionary impact participatory technologies and especially mobile communication would have in Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.
  2. Bernie DeKoven, founder of The CoWorking Institute, whom I’ve already talked about.
  3. George Siemens: I appreciate his thoughts in Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation. Connections are the key to network learning. Yet not every connection has equal weight and influence in the entire structure
  4. Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the work of Chris Argyris, which deepened my understanding of experiential learning.
  5. Ikujiro Nonaka led me to explore the process that transfers tacit knowledge in one person to tacit knowledge in another person (tacit knowledge is to know how and explicit knowledge is to know what).
  6. Robin Good confirmed about 15 years ago my beliefs about the role of the professional newsmaster and the potential relevance of newsradar services.
  7. Arnaud Leene was a programme manager at KPN Research. He described the evolution of micro-content long before others were aware of its impact in a world where information is shared.
  8. I met Teemu Arina in 2005 and we are very close in our fundamental ideas about smartmobs’ technologies, as well as good friends.
  9. Management professor and sociologist Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959 and described it in Post-Capitalist Society. In the 1990s, I could relate to how Drucker saw a bright future for information professionals in the business world as long as they embraced evolving tools and modern views of knowledge management — still true today.
  10. Warren Bennis is a management guru whom I credit for my fundamental beliefs about good leadership and social relations.

Gerrit, thanks for sharing your ‘gurus’! Readers, who inspires you? We would love to hear.
Photo credit: Ton Zijlstra (Gerrit on the boat) and Rocky DeKoven (Bernie and Gerrit)

Liz Wilson
Liz Wilson writes copy in the Marketing Communications team at Orange Switzerland and used to edit this blog. She likes talking about content, copywriting and social media on her personal blog.

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15 Responses to “Gerrit Visser: Use Smart Knowledge Networks to Be a Curator”

  1. RobinGood

    Thank you for sharing your interesting story Gerrit, and for giving us so many names of interesting people you have been learning from!

    Much appreciated indeed and thank you for your long and continued support.

    • Gerrit Visser

      You are very welcome Robin. Many years ago you convinced me that newsmasters can have a future as long as they are willing to reinvent their practices.Your concept of newsradars was so timely and upfront in an early stage. Traditional librarians better embrace the interest by other domains in todays tools and realize that being knowledge productive is about the people not about the tools.

  2. fpaynter

    Steve says “we are all curators” but I am a bit skeptical that just anyone can call themselves a professional digital curator.
    Interviewer’s note: I am not sure I agree with this. Can’t people learn to curate?

    I’m skeptical too. I think that a “professional digital curator” must have knowledge and skills that distinguish her from the mass of users and seekers who benefit from her work. As a lay person aggregating a list of links and fair use content to share, my work may be interesting to some others and it may save a researcher some time, but it won’t have the pointed relevance that an expert would bring to the curation. A lot of curation is in the selection and filtering, and a beginner–someone who has just begun to inform himself about a topic–will have a lot of noise in his curatorial signal. A professional can limit that noise, lend unique perspectives and provide clarity about what makes each perspective relevant and unique. (That’s my opinion today, anyway.)

    • RobinGood

      Great point.

      But this is the consequence of those entrepreneurs, startuppers and web marketers who are selling “curation” as the easiest way to produce content, stuff to share on your social networks and have your own web site.

      So, under disguise, they are making most people believe that publishing, by selecting and reposting other content out there, is curation, and thus, it is accessible to anyone.

      See the subtle “equation” they sell you?

      • Gerrit Visser

        hi Robin, great to ‘see’ you again and thank you again for the long term inspiration. Experience, the personal drive, motivation and how well we can relate to a topic makes the difference. I doubt curation qualities are merely a matter of professional background. The capability to recognize and value sources is key. To distinguish what is innovative and really matters. You probably agree that it is not the case that trusted curators automatically are the profs. Mind our mutual friend Teemu Arina. Teemu proved with his performance that there are different ways of learning and how we get to Rome 🙂 With todays tools availeable to all we ‘aint seen nothin yet’ And that is a great thing. Curation takes some skills yes, but they can be learnt by doing it just like blogging. Curation practices will change tomorrows way of blogging. I love Storify for example.



      • Liz Wilson

        A kid learns to be a reporter. The reporter learns to be an editor. the editor learns to be a curator. ‘Professional’ curators aren’t born, they’re made through apprenticeship and practice.

        Just like professional anythings.

        So isn’t it possible that the people who start out as beginners using the available tools can become professionals with time and practice and attention to great teachers like you, Gerrit and Robin?

        And don’t they have the right to try? Writing, editing and curating are great pleasures as well as being ‘trades’ by which many of us earn our living. They help to educate and enrich us.

        I believe we should encourage everyone to have a go … the readers will know if they are an apprentice or a master.

        • Gerrit Visser

          Liz I would go a step further. See curation as personal knowledge management realizing that different mindsets and our relation to the topic influences the choices we make. The label of professionalism illustrates the context where the job may be done. But being it an assignment does not make it professional. Yes we learn by doing and we even learn more by interacting with others. Professionals may do a poor job while so called amateurs may perform on a professional level.Do we see professional curation merely as a paid job or is it how skilled we are? The internet changes how we learn. With todays tools we may be surprised about the backgrounds of the best curators, call it ‘trusted sources’

    • Gerrit Visser

      hi Frank, thank you fro responding on this.
      Giving it some more thought I am not sure wether my motivation to think that information specialists are better curators is either pride or fear. Pride because I carried the job title Information Specialist. Fear because I realize that everyone can enter my domain and do great. Long term practice in a business setting does not make us automatically better curators. Non librarians can be better subject experts. Being knowledgeable is person dependent. Realize that contextual knowledge and intrinsic motivation can make non librarians excell in this field. Professional training and experience used to be an advantage but today it may hinder as well. Professionals may have to ‘unlearn’ some things and adopt innovative ways of looking at things. Yes there are certain skills that we learnt in library schools. But I am optimistic that this generation picks up those skills in a natural way. Youngsters may be more internet savy than many so-called profs. In universities and even on high schools it is part of the curriculum today. With todays tools it is likely that professionalism will get a different meaning.This occurs in all professions. Disintermediation is to be welcomed. Professionals have proven not be automatically upfront in adopting new ways of doing things. Where retrieving online information from databases used to be the exclusive monopoly of the librarian it is a good thing this changing. A key factor is the time availeable or that we are willing to spent. Where we share knowledge as equals and we are open to innovative practices we will find that we learn collectively to reinvent new practices. If librarians don’t give up the arrogance to deny todays developments they should not be surprised to become part of the redundant workforce. My advice would be collaborate, share and interact with other ‘end-users’. Give away freely and find that this pays off.


      • Liz Wilson

        Gerrit, thank you for the wise words – you put it so well. Robin and Frank, when I posted earlier I forgot to thank you for responding.

  3. fpaynter

    This is such an interesting conversation! There’s much I agree with and much I’d like to expand on, but I don’t have time at this moment. So let me instead share a web space with you, a curation site that’s been consistently aggregating fine content since October, 2000: wood s lot. When I think of curation, I think of Mark Woods.

    Mark used to call his blog “the department of gluage and scissorology,” a droll reference to offset typography, I think. At some point he dropped that, probably when he began automating the aggregation of some of his content through feeds.

    Mark is the polar opposite of “those entrepreneurs, startuppers and web marketers who are selling ‘curation’ as the easiest way to produce content” that Robin mentioned. He’s a “professional” who makes little or no income from his work, but his craftsmanship and well informed, well timed collection and sharing of information about the humanities is invaluable.

    • Liz Wilson

      Truly beautiful example of curation.

      But does all curation have to be the same? Isn’t that like saying there’s only one way to write? Like telling James Joyce he’s no good because he’s not Charles Dickens?

      • fpaynter

        Oh, no! I didn’t mean to sound the least bit prescriptive. I just thought you’d be interested in Mark’s work. He’s been clearly curatorial since before the concept crystallized into a social media buzzword. Mark’s manual approach reflects his own expertise and sensibilities. I didn’t mean to imply that his work is better or worse than a webpub like The Gerrit Visser Daily. The automated tools like provide added dimensions and flexibility. Mark, an old scissors and glue man, is naturally slow to adopt newer publishing tools, but he sure has a great eye for filtering and selecting content in his area of expertise.

        • Liz Wilson

          You are so right about Mark’s work – I will be going back to it again and again. Thanks for sharing it! And while he may be an old school cut-and-paste guy at heart, he is using the same skills and eye for what’s beautiful and interesting with new cut-and-paste tools.

          I’m new to curation (like you, but even newer) but what I see already is that different people use different tools for different purposes. There’s so much potential for people to do it their way – that’s what I like about it.



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