Our Friends Become Curators of Twitter-Based News

    by David Sasaki
    April 2, 2010

    I like to listen before I talk. Which means that during my morning routine I read before I write. But where to turn and what to read?

    One of the most oft-repeated statements I heard at conferences last year: “our problem isn’t information overload, it’s crappy filters.” In other words, we shouldn’t complain about all that amazing, free information out there. We just need to get better at finding what we care about and ignoring the rest.

    The podium speakers suggested that this would happen in two ways. First, through a variety of crowd recommendation sites like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, NewsTrust, and Delicious.


    These algorithm-based, automated services would then be supplemented by a new wave of mega-content sites that are curated by human (often volunteer) editors: True/Slant, The Daily Beast, Global Voices, Huffington Post, Global Post.

    But increasingly I’m finding that neither the crowd recommendation sites nor the human edited sites are my first stop for news. I still read quite a few blogs and I still check in at NYTimes.com, but at least half of what I read these days comes from links on Twitter. To everyone’s surprise, Twitter has turned out to be less an inane lifelog of what we ate for lunch and much more a streaming list of cleverly editorialized headlines with links to the main article. For many of us, Twitter is becoming the front page of our morning newspaper. Either in perception or in practice, our reporters are becoming our friends and our friends are becoming the editors of our Twitter-based newspaper.

    As a curation of news and interest, Twitter has its pros and cons. The re-tweet function spreads news across networks of followers. Cultural rituals like “Follow Friday“ introduce new individuals into like-minded networks. Hashtags allow discussions to take place around certain topics or events.


    But perhaps no form of communication – other than arguments between couples – has a more frustrating permanent archive than Twitter. What you post today is just about gone forever tomorrow. (You can only search for a message that has been posted on Twitter in the past 10 days. After that it disappears into the deep sea of the forgotten.)

    Twitter as a tool for curation has helped a few special twitterers become practically professional curators. Maria Popova is a native of Sofia, Bulgaria now based in Los Angeles who describes herself as “a cultural curator and curious mind at large.” Which is to say that she graduated from college in 2007, started a blog (“curating eclectic interestingness from culture’s collective brain”), and then began posting interesting links on Twitter as if it were a way to earn income. In a way it was. Maria was featured in a New York Times blog post by Nick Bilton which drew the conclusion that “we are all human aggregators now”, and which also drew a lot more attention to Miss Popova. In addition to her day job at TBWAChiatDay, she has also taken her curatorial skills to TED, Good Magazine, and Wired UK.

    Last year we thought that the problem of crappy information filters would be solved either by fancy algorithms on crowd recommendation sites like Digg and StumpleUpon, or with the help of new, human-edited portals like the Huffington Post and Global Voices. Instead it seems that many of us are increasingly depending on individuals; talented curators of the web like Popova, Gina Trapani, and Andrew Sullivan.

    In 2005 the rise of the weblog was supposed to turn us all into pundits, voicing our opinions on this matter and that. Five years later, notes Marisa Meltzer in The American Prospect, and everyone seems more interested in curation than opinion: “With blogs, everyone became a critic. With Tumblr, everyone’s a curator.”


    If “crappy filters” was one of the big conference talking points last year, then “online curation” is quickly making a name for itself this year. Robert Scoble – a conference careerist – says it is the word he hears the most these days, especially at last month’s SXSW. (Though Andrew Lih said that ‘curation’ was also the word of the day at the 2009 SXSW.)

    All of this talk about the individual curator has me wondering about the future of news organizations. When someone visits Global Voices or the Daily Beast are they coming for a view of the world through the eyes of the entire organization, or do they come specifically for particular writers and editors who they’ve come to trust?

    Personally I visit The Atlantic for Jeffrey Goldberg and Graeme Wood. When I go to Foreign Policy it’s specifically to read the latest from Joshua Keating, Evgeny Morozov, and Marc Lynch. I have absolutely no interest in TechCrunch, but I do try to keep up on the latest from Paul Carr, who happens to write there.

    Maybe I am the outlier here, the one who spends too much time reading news and too much time following the evolution of thought and interests of certain individuals. But I also feel like this is a general trend for everyone – that we all are increasingly depending on individuals and not organizations to curate the day’s news for us.

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    Tagged: curator digg huffington post new york times paul carr Reddit twitter

    11 responses to “Our Friends Become Curators of Twitter-Based News”

    1. Alejandro says:

      I’m on twitter more now as my RSS feed. I follow what may seem a hodgepodge of people but is, in fact, a specific list of my interests, i.e. music, culture, art, photographers, etc. Yet, I do ask myself one question almost everyday: what am I missing over there while I’m reading this here. This leads me to try ridiculous ways of organizing my links, or feeds.

      I’ve also come to find that new interests arise for me almost every day from twitter. Someone posted a link about Burma the other day and, well, I don’t think I’ve EVER read anything about Burma. I think it was a Mother Jones article. It spawned a new interest for me, but like the twitter archives, this may only last for 10 days.

    2. “Maybe I am the outlier here, the one who spends too much time reading news and too much time following the evolution of thought and interests of certain individuals. But I also feel like this is a general trend for everyone – that we all are increasingly depending on individuals and not organizations to curate the day’s news for us.”

      No, I think you’re right, and I think the fall of “organizations” and the rise of “individual” curators is a very good thing indeed. The real problem is the sheer volume of tweetage being generated. The last time Twitter published a number, it was something like 50 million tweets a day, or about 600 a second.

      My own estimate is that something like 300,000 new Twitter accounts are created every day, although the vast majority of these contribute nothing to the flow. You can’t curate that kind of flow without assistance from an algorithm. You can’t even curate people if there are really 300,000 new ones joining Twitter every day.

      Even if you only look at active tweeters, there are about six million of those. I’ve seen some work that indicates that there are only on the order of 200 – 300 “influentials” on Twitter. I haven’t taken the time to try to collect names, although I know how to do it in principle. But I think you could realistically curate that number.

      I follow on the order of 5,000 people. Again, most of those are inactive, and I periodically do a purge to get rid of the ones who aren’t tweeting. I’d say, though, that there are at least 50 and maybe 100 that I’ve actually been able to engage with who live outside of the Portland area. There are another 50 or so in Portland.


    3. Twitter is currently the hub for my PKM (personal knowledge management) Filtering is key to clearing the clutter. Identifying “Curators” is essential! As mentioned, the filter needs to be constantly tweaked so as not to become to safe and insular and also to get rid of “noise”

    4. i am surprised that somone who reads 5000 users wants to negate important points the author made. i read only approx. 400 – 450 and I systematically unfollow people who tweet about going out for coffee too often. I find good people to follow by looking whom good people follow. although it has been said beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder (only) certain objective aspects have been found to be universal in all cultures (incl. old ones). analog twitter: if you follow “good” users you’ll get “good stuff” and it is not only a subjective feeling or CURATORS like those the author mentioned wold never have risen (to the top).
      also important: i am doing seminares and i developed a technique for thousands of participants (during the 1980ies): people would do llots of experimenting or exercises (by themselves, with a neighbor, in small groups). N.B. : It did not matter to an individual, a dyad or a small group how many others there were walking prallel to him/them. the same goes for twitter: even if millions of (more) people will use twitter in the way the author suggested – as long as you have a “pocket” of certain good curators who are helpful to you it doesn’t matter to you how many millions more of them are out there, helping other users, does it?
      furthermore the number of my followers (steadily rising without any tricks!) does seem to indicate that i might be somewhat of a curator for some of them too, ditto the number os lists people “pack” me in, it’s an indication that they find my tweets valuable. so i really like what twitter ENABLES users to read and how it helps to EMPOWER people some of whom might formerly had no idea where to find “good info” at all. in fact, tweeter is offering quite an education to many users (think of the tweeter who discovered Burma through a tweet). i love it! so i totally agree with this VERY GOOD article and i shall RT gladly to all of my presently 1,105 followers. :-))
      vfb (#vfbE for English tweets).

    5. Hi David. This is a great post. Thank you for highlighting how Twitter continues to grow as a key “news” and “first alert” source. However, I agree with your frustration. Twitter may not be designed to be the archive and collection of relevant tweeted insights and education. This is why Tumblr and Delicious are great personal collectors and organizers of such insights.

      At HiveFire, we’re looking at organizations as having a part to play in leveraging twitter and aggregating to educate both customers and the larger community. It’s an exciting time to curate and we expect to see more tools and companies to make the job easier in 2010.

    6. David,

      Excellent article – and thank you for the shout-out. I think you’re absolutely right, many of these web services are shifting away from being “social networks” per se and towards becoming content discovery platforms. And as more and more information becomes more and more easily available to us, these human “filters” will matter all the more – if only as tools for preserving our own sanity by helping us sift out the signal to avoid proverbial deafness from all the informational noise out there.

      One caveat I’d add though – most of your points relate to news, and that’s certainly a major stage for talented curators to shine. But I also think there’s tremendous value in non-newsy content – interestingness from the fringes of creative culture and scientific knowledge that stimulates people intellectually, emotionally and creatively. And in this culture of newsy urgency, it’s tragically easy for great content from this space – a fantastic obscure German short film, the little-known history of an invention we use every day, the work of an insanely talented artist working out of her crummy studio in Brooklyn – to become buried beneath all the nowificatoin of the latest app, the newest YouTube sensation or the most hotly disputed political issue. And I think part of the responsibility of great curators is to offer this kind of 360-degree view of culture, to be a barometer not just of news but also of other valuable fragments of culture that will never make the CNN or Digg homepage but are just important in building a well-rounded pool of intellectual curiosity.

      Oh, and on a personal note, I’m delighted to see someone sharing in my lack of respect for the sensationalistic and often ill-informed techno-tabloid that is TechCrunch. Cheers.

    7. I don’t think you’re an outlier at all. I function roughly the same way and I know many other people like myself. We’re definitely not in the majority, but I think we’re a growing group. I also think this idea extends to offline media. I might not care about a lot of the stuff in my daily newspaper, but there are several columnists I enjoy and I will make it a point to read them.

    8. Your experience matches mine, although I find myself enjoying links provided by a few organization Twitter accounts, and there are several that don’t just use their account to flack their own work.

    9. peppy_5 says:

      I do think your right-BUT-I feel that today when you write the (what ever ) medium you write you should know what is going on–don’t take it for granted that the other newspaper or what every medium looked at is right. IN OTHER WORDS FIND OUT FOR YOURSELFS. AND BE HONEST. and still you can be interesting. thank you

    10. Amanda says:

      I agree with you completely re: Twitter – I’ve been touting it for a long time as my favorite way to find high quality news, analysis and cultural information. I personally find Popova a bit irritating – seems everything she posts is either “fascinating” or “brilliant” – but agree that knowing how to find and promote interesting content on Twitter is an increasingly valuable skill.

      A blog I follow, the Tomorrow Museum, recently ranted on the over-use of the word “curator,” arguing that many so-called curators of online content are really editors:

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