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March 16, 2012

We already have a word for this

Blog Definition

Before the internet came along, I’d recommend books to friends, clip or photocopy articles and write a lot of stuff down. Technology changed that. But it didn’t change me. I’m a curious guy. I like exploring new ideas and I like being pushed outside my comfort zone. I enjoy being challenged and having my mind changed. (Politicians call this “flip-flopping” and think it’s bad, which is just ridiculous.)

What the web has enabled for me is more access to more ideas and more tools to share them with other people. That’s what this site has really become: a tool for sharing things that interest me. When people talk about the changing “information economy,” they are right to be excited and even confused, because it’s exciting and confusing. We’re in a sort of golden age of content and sharing. There is so much stuff out there, and all of it is interesting at least to the person who made it. And there are so many smart people digging up great stuff and sharing.

If only there were a word for this new era of information sharing. Something unique and created for exactly this purpose. Oh wait, there is: blogging.

Except “blogging” isn’t cool anymore. Nobody wants to call themselves a “blogger.” Say it out lout: “I’m a blogger.” Feel stupid? I do. It’s a stupid word. Blogger. Ug. And I think this is really what’s at the crux of the whole debate around curation; saying “I’m a curator” sounds vaguely important and not at all like something you should be openly mocked for. I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

For a little over a decade I was a DJ. Saying this, like saying “I’m a blogger,” also makes me cringe a bit. That’s because the barrier for entry to being a DJ was low and they were just fucking everywhere. It got to a point where DJs, including me, started getting really defensive about what we did. We started using adjectives to elevate ourselves. I wasn’t a DJ, I was a “Working DJ.” I was a “Resident DJ.” Or “I DJ at [notable club] every [day of week].” For a brief period one summer, I was a “Touring DJ.”

And the discussion about what being a DJ actually meant changed a lot. People would get hung up on beat mixing and “story telling on the dancefloor” (literally a thing someone once said to me). Being a DJ wasn’t enough. As a group of people, we were really insecure and started taking ourselves way too seriously.

Eventually I got older and wiser and stopped trying to pump my own tires. Eventually being a DJ was enough. I enjoyed it and I was good at it, I think. I also realized that to be a DJ all you had to do was pick music and play it for other people, the rest was just additional stuff that might make you better, but it didn’t actually turn you into something else. And the best DJs have always been the ones that focus more on that basic point — picking music by spending countless hours looking and listening to find great tracks — then all the other stuff. (Though the most famous DJs are mostly the ones that excel at marketing. But that’s the same as everything in life these days, no?)

I still enjoy talking to other DJs about music, but only if they are the sort who are comfortable calling themselves just DJs. If they aren’t, they don’t actually want to talk about music. They usually just want to talk about themselves and how important they are.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. And I’m not wrong. In the realm of my experience, bloggers are the new DJs. The barrier to entry is low and some people feel the need to give themselves a new label. They’ve apparently settled on “curator,” even though this is clearly not the right word.

By the loosest definitions, I suppose it’s apt. But if being intellectually curious and sharing things you like on a website counts as curation, what exactly doesn’t? My bookshelves are curated. My iTunes library is curated. If we’re getting all fun and fancy free with the term, virtually everything in my life is curated. But calling me a curator because my MP3s are heavy on Pixies and Beastie Boys, and light on Justin Bieber is silly. These are just choices based on my own personal taste. They are also based on my age — if you’re a 34-year-old man in 2012, there’s a pretty good chance you prefer the Pixies to Justin Bieber.

The things in my life aren’t part of a curated collection. They are simply reference points for who I am. They are an accumulation of my experience, the choices I’ve made and the people I’ve met, who likely turned me on to a lot of it by sharing their interests. This blog is also a collection of references. Things that interest me and that I think are important. But it is still a blog. I even call it that on the homepage and in the about section.

Jason Kottke also calls his site a blog. John Gruber doesn’t. I don’t think either calls himself a curator, though. Maria Popova never uses the word blog. Brain Pickings is apparently a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness” and she is its “cultural curator.” Um… right.

If what we want is a better word, “filter” is a more accurate description of what’s happening. We are all seeing a lot of content and we’re selectively choosing what to pass on, what gets through. Unfortunately saying “I’m a filter” might actually sound worse than “I’m a blogger,” though it certainly doesn’t come with the same baggage.

Ultimately, I think my point isn’t that this modern “curation” isn’t important — it is very important. Human content filters are substantially better than computer content filters. This is why I never want to watch anything on my Netflix “Top Ten for Tyler” list. Computers don’t understand the subtleties of content. They don’t get that liking Eric Clapton isn’t the same as liking Rod Stewart (a recommendation I just pulled from Rdio). But if you are filtering through content, making connections, adding context and sharing it online, you aren’t a curator. You’re a blogger. It’s a word we invented to define that particular activity. Curator is a word we invented for something else.

I’m a blogger and I’m okay with that. Why aren’t you?