Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, review. Those who can’t review, tweet. Those who can’t tweet retweet.” That quote is zinging around the internet this week. People are attributing it to Esquire, although I’m not finding it there. I first saw it, ironically, on Facebook. It’s also on Twitter, of course.
The sentiment expressed above is funny, in a mocking sort of way. It sounds good, but it also makes a real point: that people should do things instead of saying things, and that people whose contributions to the internet consist of criticism rather than creation — or, even worse, parroting other people’s criticism — are worthy of ridicule.
Unfortunately, it makes as little sense as the quote upon which it is based: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.”
This is what people have always done: pass along things we find worthwhile. Otherwise none of us would speak, let alone compose symphonies using the same notes or find that pesky Higgs Boson. What’s changed today is that the urge to pass things along is much easier to act on, and that it applies equally to everything from the significant (“They think they found the Higgs Boson!”) to the insignificant (“Justin Bieber has hair again today!”). In every case, “retweet” is always just a tap away.
Plenty of person-to-person sharing goes on these days, obviously, It helps us make sense of the world, on our own — and that’s before you factor in larger scale curation, like how Google works (by prioritizing sites that humans have chosen to link to) or tools that track the music people are sharing, their Likes, their up and down ratings, and everything else they do to shape the world — which, in turn, shapes us.
There’s too much stuff. We can help each other find it. This is what the age of curation is about. Yes, it’s amusing to make fun of people who seem to retweet other people’s links all day, but that’s giving all of those retweeters and Likers too little credit by far. What they’re really doing is strengthening connections in the global brain, in much the same way the axons and dendrites in our brain grow and lose connections to shape our minds.
An academic librarian recently asked me to comment on what it means when people “curate” content for an upcoming article in a search-oriented publication. I hope I’m not betraying her trust by posting my response here in advance of that article, but I just can’t help it, because now it’s on my mind. Here’s what I sent her:
“Content curation is the natural evolution of our globally-networked consciousness. This sounds like a bunch of hippie drivel, but we really are creating a global brain, of sorts, by encoding human knowledge and tracking human activity. Using the human nodes of this network to strengthen some of these connections while weakening others (by choosing either to pass along i.e. ‘curate’ information or not to pass it along) helps this global brain function better as a system, which in turn increases its power whenever any of us need to tap into it. As luck would have it, our cultural products themselves have been mirroring this technological evolution; movies are largely sequels or ‘inspired by’ previous works; music is increasingly reliant on sampling, DJing, and repackaging styles of the past; and the DVR allows us to produce our own sequence of entertainment, rather than relying on network programmers, to name a few examples of this. When we curate, for whatever reason and in whatever form, we are enhancing a connection in the global neural network we are inadvertently creating.”
Evolver.fm is about music apps and digital music. In that context, curation (hopefully the last time I’ll have to use that word in this article) is about posting songs to This Is My Jam; embedding them on Facebook (manually or automatically); tweeting a link to an album, and so on. Much of that data gets analyzed by music recommendation engines, which mine Twitter and the web to see what people are into these days. Other data gets sucked up by sites like The Hype Machine, where you can listen to around a thousand blogs through one interface; and of course there’s that original act of sharing, where the friends of a person who shared something get to hear it. Even if they don’t press play, the choice to share a song has already affected the world.
The latest example of this: @uncovery, which automatically tweets links to music based on the opinions of critics writing for 65 publications. Granted, those are professional reviewers, but the principle is the same one that powers legions of other apps, such as We Are Hunted: It aggregates opinion to help you make a decision. If you like one of its recommendations, retweet it. You’re only helping to make the world smarter about whether that album is worth listening to. It seems obvious, but given that criticizing “internet people” who retweet stuff is becoming a trend these days, this is a point that apparently has to be made (again).
Esquire, your quote is funny, and I’m generally a fan of your magazine — especially “What I’ve Learned,” which curates (ugh, not that word again) advice from famous people, so that the rest of us might benefit from what they learned. However, the retweeting “internet people” being made fun of these days should be appreciated for what they’re doing: making the global brain smarter. By deciding to share something or not, we’re increasing human knowledge, not only about music, but about everything else too. That’s a hard thing to ridicule.