I had my first online argument recently. I didn’t enjoy it, as I detest arguing in public (or even at all), but this seemed to matter. Not in the way that poverty or injustice or corruption matter. But it was important to me because I felt my adversary was simplifying to the point of losing meaning, which seems to be almost a way of life where a new or complicated word is involved.

It was an argument about the term “content curator” and what it means. I had started an online discussion asking for examples of content curation in internal communications (because it’s one of my fields of interest).

The only response was more than I had bargained for.

My correspondent felt vehemently that “curator” was a lexical relic, exhumed from a dusty Victorian dictionary by software manufacturers hyping their wares. He strongly advised professional communicators not to confuse their clients by using this “jargon”. “Editor” would do fine.

I wasn’t convinced… but… did he have a point? Having been an editor for many years, did I need to add content curator (caveat, still learning) to my bio? What did it tell people about me that they couldn’t infer from “editor”?

Some considerable thinking-time later, I still couldn’t agree with him, and here’s why. Calling a content curator an editor is like calling a precision watchmaker a technician. It just doesn’t encapsulate the role. (I am a writer here at Paper.li, which operates in the curation arena, so you could take the view that I would defend the “jargon”.)

Content curator: a job description

Editor is a general term. It could cover a multitude of roles. To define what any editor does means drilling down to their exact job: copyeditor, editor-in-chief, film editor, picture editor, book editor, web editor. Some editors revise, reduce or reorder creative output; some commission or select material; some direct other people to do these tasks. Some concentrate on the detail, some on the broad picture.

A curator, according to the Oxford Concise English Dictionary, is “a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection” — which can be on or offline.

This is borne out by exemplifications from some of those experts who have been studying digital content curation since its inception.

Gerrit Visser, one of my curator role models, cites this definition from Rohit Bhargava, who wrote a manifesto for content curators back in 2009:

…someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares information resources.

Robin Good published a checklist of tasks for high-quality content curation. He says the quality curator does the following (my summary) —

  • Optimises, edits, rewrites titles
  • Formats content
  • Selects and adds relevant images
  • Writes text excerpts to aid understanding
  • Writes an intro specific to the audience using a personalised voice
  • Classifies using metadata
  • Integrates links
  • Personalises each curated item differently for each channel
  • Vets and verifies original sources
  • Credits and provides full attribution
  • Filters out most incoming content
  • Taps into a personally selected network of trusted curators, and recommends them when appropriate
  • Suggests items to other curators
  • Searches for new relevant content and scouts for new sources
  • Creates filters and precise searches
  • Is transparent
  • Crowdsources information, tips and suggestions.

Does the term “editor” really bring to mind all those tasks? Perhaps if we say “digitial content editor”, yes, but just “editor” — not to me.

Say exactly what you mean

“Curator/curation” is increasingly accepted as a term and a practice within content marketing, education and the not-for-profit arena. If these communities are using the terms, shouldn’t professionals working with them speak the same language?

There is a prevailing ethos that, in the English language, simple equals better. We are advised to eliminate jargon, use short words instead of long ones, be direct and clear. Often, this is good advice: plain English frequently makes more sense because it is easier to absorb, confusion is reduced, tasks can be carried out more quickly.

But there is a danger in oversimplifying until precise meaning is lost in a fog of broad generalisations. When we take away the specificity implied by “content curator” we lose the true picture of what the person does, how they work, what skills are required, what they contribute. Accuracy beats simplicity any day, even if it means understanding a new term or putting a few more words on the page.

How would you describe your activity? Are you an editor or a content curator? 

Photo credit: twinstar0 on Flickr

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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23 Responses to “Why a Content Curator Is Not an Editor”

  1. Robin Boast

    Thank you for this insightful piece. Your vehement correspondent has a point. Though not dug up from a dusty Victorian dictionary, over the past 20 years the term has been devalued in museums to increasingly refer to a collections technician or manager. It is very interesting that the term has been appropriated for on-line curation just as it is going out of fashion in museums.

    However, it is going out of fashion in museums for the very reasons you correctly argue it does apply to something very different than an editor. It is disappearing from museums because the value of a highly skilled, even expert, custodian of the collections and their significance is deemed irrelevant in the market-driven ethos that dominates modern museums. Thanks for fighting for its resurrection and significance.

    • Liz Wilson

      Thanks for commenting, Robin. What you say about museum curation is real food for thought – I had not personally tuned in to that loss of curation skills in the museum world. I would like to read more about that if you could suggest some posts or links.

  2. Malo Ramsoir

    For me ‘content curator’ suggests a role far less involved than the above list. Personally it makes me think of simple aggregation and management rather than any editing, revision or additional writing. Those qualities are what I think of when i imagine an editor.

  3. DB

    Editor ? Curator ? Aggregator ? Does it really matter ? For all its many and varied good qualities – and for the not inconsiderable skill needed to assemble a list from which content is derived – paper.li is just a vanity publishing variant. Fun ? yes. Useful ? Yes. A medium of any consequence ? No

    • Liz Wilson

      Hello DB,

      Thanks for taking the time to make those points. I agree that Paper.li and the many other curation tools, taken individually, are different things to different people. But I think there is a wider picture.

      Taken together, social media tools (including sharing and curation tools) are of consequence because they are part of the greater revolution taking place that allows people to share information and be heard as never before.

      It is precisely because of these tools that people can mobilize in different ways, news can spread more widely, information and data is opening up, and we can be better informed and then act on the information. Awareness on many topics is being raised, people are connecting into communities, and as a result challenging regimes or governments like never before.

      I would like to give you an example. I spoke to a farmer whose community produces rubber, and he is publishing Paper.lis in three different languages to connect the community and raise awareness of some of the issues in his industry. (You can read his story in the interviews here – S.C. Nair: the Farmers’ Champion). In this situation, his Paper.lis are of consequence, certainly to him.

      (Of course, these are my personal opinions, not those of Paper.li).

  4. Karen Dietz

    Great post and yes, I am a content curator in the fullest sense of the word! I try to exemplify Robin’s checklist as best I can. Why? Because we do not need to add to the noise out there — as content curators we need to cut through the noise and deliver meaningful, relevant content to our readers that helps them get smarter — not be more overwhelmed.

    Aggregators simply add to the noise, without adding much value (if any) to the reader. It is hardly helpful. But most people do not know the difference. They jump onto the content curation bandwagon, aggregate a bunch of articles without thought or review, and think they’ve done something worthwhile. Not!

    I definitely don’t consider myself an editor because I am not re-writing or editing anyone’s copy. But I am a reviewer and comment on the article as a way to provide context and guidance. My role is to weed through the junk and offer the best to my readers out there.

    I am very transparent about what articles I bring into my collection and why. My editorial policy is stated right up front.

    This takes work but is totally worth it. I now have a loyal base of fans/readers that is turning into real business.

    Check it out at http://www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it

    • Desiree Dreeuws

      “My role is to weed through the junk and offer the best to my readers out there.” But this is precisely what editors do. We clear out the junk (the poor words and such) to present the best possible message to readers.
      That said, I’m also interested in the distinctions between content curator and content editor (or editor).

      • Liz Wilson

        Thanks for commenting Desiree. I completely agree that editors “clear out junk” but (having been an editor for a long time) I know the word can cover other jobs – as an editor, I have sometime overseen an entire publication. That’s why I feel the term is too general to describe content curation. What does content editor mean to you? Someone who chooses content, or someone who copyedits content?

        • Desiree Dreeuws

          I think a content editor can do (and does) both: chose content and copyedit content.

    • Jhart

      I know nothing more about the world of publishing, news, editing or curation (if that is a word?) than the average person on the street, but I have been very interested in this discussion and the different interpretation people have to certain words. My understanding is that in basic terms, and as described in the Oxford English Dictionary, a curator is, ‘a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection’ and an editor is, ‘a person who is in charge of and determines the final content of a newspaper, magazine, or multi-author book’, quite different meanings and from what I can see two quite different roles. As Karen describes, as a curator she does not ‘edit’ as she does not re-write or change copy. Maybe I am being too simplistic?

      • Liz Wilson

        Hi Jhart, Well, I don’t think you are being simplistic at all. The world is changing, jobs and roles are changing, and that means definitions are changing too. That’s why I wrote the post. To me, “editor” can have multiple meanings but I do feel “content curator” is quite specific. Perhaps the next step will be to define different kinds of content curator – video curators, subject expert curators etc. What do you think?

  5. Branimir Zlamalik

    And the list lists EXACTLY what an GOOD and REAL editor is supposed to do!
    Content curation? Just a buzzword to make it sound more important. Like stating in resume to be ceramic technician after washing dishes in some restaurant.

    • Liz Wilson

      Hi Branimir, Thanks for adding to the discussion – it is appreciated. I wonder if it started as a buzzword but is now gaining real significance? It will be interesting to see what we think about “content curator” in, say, a year from now. Are you involved in editing or curating?

  6. Pricing News

    Well describe difference, great article and comments!

    To add another example on top of what Karen shared. I work in the Pricing Software business and for years have been tasked with finding competitive intel, the best of pricing practitioner examples, and thought leadership blogs/articles to name a few items. In short there was no one good source for this info. In short, I created it myself. The main platform is an online daily Paper ( http://paper.li/PricingNews/1326788715) which is dedicated to all things Pricing (Software Tools, Strategy, Consulting Services and I thought why not spread the top pricing job posting s well). I also tweet (@pricingnews) which helped tremendously with the paper initiative. I also update the Pricing Software News company page wall on Facebook. The ability to embed twitter/facebook has allowed me to not have to create a blog or flesh out a robust website (www.pricingsoftwarenews.com). Paper.li can be embedded as well, but don’t think it neccessary to add to the website as the Facebook activity stream provides a running list of the “best of” the pricing news. The only “editing it requires is removing duplicate stories, deleting the undesired stories or the repeats from past days caused by twitter followers retweeteing stories.

    Paper.li is fabulous and I am very grateful for having found it! I have recently started playing with scoopit as well but I like the Paper.li tool better. I only have a few nits, like not being able to “edit” content while in the “see all articles” view. problem is there are uncategorized items or some news articles that are always included in this view but not shown in any of the categories.

    • Liz Wilson

      Hi Pricing News, Many thanks for your comment and for sharing the detail about how you edit and curate your Paper.li. I’m sure that will be useful to many editors and curators out there. Keep in touch to let us know how it goes.

  7. Hannah

    This blog post is from 2012 but I’ll chime in because I’m a magazine editor for health & fitness for a national magazine and a content curator for special interest news for a well-known online site. (two separate companies) I will say content curating and editorial work is not the same, but is similar when it comes to journalism (I don’t know about other areas). I have a Master’s in Journalism with a specialty in magazine editing and I’ve worked in that field for 10 years. In 2008 I started content curating for a different company. In terms of online content, the two positions are somewhat similar. My duties are somewhat similar. As a editor, I do a lot, everything from hearing pitches from the writers, determining what content goes in the magazine, etc. As a content curator, I organize and display content for my section, which is “best of.” My main goal is to determine the most relevant content (and order) to display on in the “best of” section of the website I work for. Choose, organize, display. As editor, I also choose, organize and display but as editor I do way more than as content curator. In journalism print and digital content curating and editorial work is very similar. I can’t vouch for other sectors such as Museums etc.



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