originality and new media, or, “listicle” is (not) a dirty word
The word of the day is listicle. It’s a word that makes me slightly giggly in an I’m-in-middle-school-health-class-and-can’t-handle-learning-about-male-anatomy kind of way. It’s also a portmanteau of list and article. I learned the term just a few days ago when I stumbled upon a Wikipedia page devoted to describing this new journalistic* genre. That was right about when that panicked sensation set in, the one where I get paranoid about how there is no way I could ever keep up with all the new material on the internet and therefore will quickly be left in the dust of my very own generation (I can imagine a term for this already exists, an unreasonably long German compound word with its very own Wikipedia page, and the fact that I don’t know the word further fuels my paranoia).
A listicle is essentially a beefed up list; minimal content is what allows it to pass as original writing. I see listicles riddling the interwebs these days: in New York magazine’s entertainment blog Vulture (The ten best movie destructions of NYC!), on Flavorpill (Possible uses for unusable stock photography!), even an entire website dedicated to listicles (Eight Rush Limbaugh controversies caused by his big fat mouth!) I, myself, am quite wary of listicles. Is this obsession with lists particular to our technology-centric culture? That sounds like something the New York Times would write about, citing High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon and his penchant for top five lists as a hypothetical catalyst.
In fact, a lot of people have been writing about this trend, just using different vocabularies to talk about it. Some guy named Stephen Rosenbaum is publishing one of those pop business books titled Curation Nation. The premise of the book is that computers aren’t making humans obsolete—we need people to filter through all the information that the interwebs throws at us. (Well, no duh.) Rosenbaum appropriates the word curation** to describe this ostensibly new trend in business strategy. A Wired review of the book says that “The good news is that we’re curating all the time, whether we realize it or not. Every time we post a video, like a link or comment on a blog post, we are making editorial decisions and curating.” Microblogging and social networking platforms like Twitter and Tumblr make it easy for the average Joe to disseminate the stuff he finds important and amusing to the rest of the world wide web. Rosenbaum is, of course, gung ho about “curating” (and I use the scare quotes because I’m not totally on board with the way he uses this word), certain that this so-called business practice will become “more lucrative than automated aggregation or even creation of original content.”
New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote a related article in the NYTimes magazine a few weeks ago, but he used very different language—and took a very different stance—on the issue. He bemoans the fact that we “have bestowed our highest honor—market valuation—not on those who labor over the making of original journalism but on aggregation.” That last word is the key. What Rosenbaum lauded as curation, Keller derides as aggregation. His definition of aggregation sounds suspiciously similar to Rosenbaum’s curation, but with a much more cynical twist:
“Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.
Keller goes on to play the Blame Game (that means you, Ms. Arianna Huffington, Countess of Cuddly Kitten videos, Czarina of Salacious Celebrity Gossip) and yearn for the days of yore when journalists actually produced content. Can you imagine that?? Writers actually writing original material?
I’m fascinated by the way Rosenbaum and Keller use two different words, with their various nuances, to describe the same phenomenon happening in today’s media culture. Curate implies the creation of new meaning by selecting and juxtaposing only a few important items; at least, that’s what art curators aim to do. I try to encourage new interpretations, too, in my Comparative Imagery series, hoping that a carefully chosen assortment of images will evoke brilliant insights on the reader’s part. Aggregation seems much more slapdash, or at least choosing pre-made content for more opportunistic reasons, whether to boost ad sales or target a particular demographic.
Curation and aggregation bring up an interesting idea: what does it mean to produce content? “Curating” a blog may yield some degree of new ideas, but it’s not the same kind of content production as writing an essay with a original thesis. We can’t just think of originality on the interwebs today as the binary of Borrowed Content versus Original Content; instead, it’s more of a continuum, as I have represented below. Listicles, with their feeble attempt to insert the author’s voice into an aggregated list, would fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum.
But can creative output ever be completely original? That is, will we ever reach that rightmost end of the continuum above? Conceptual artist Adam Pendleton disagrees. I saw him speak last week at Performa’s Not For Sale lecture, in which he compared the way he borrows language to playing music. Every key on a piano has been played, yet a composer makes new music by rearranging notes. In the same way, all language has been uttered before; it’s the way we say them that adds new meaning. He explored this idea in his 2007 Revival, where he appropriates the language of Southern Baptist revivals and fuses it with activist and avant-garde literature. Hearing a gay rights speech sung by a gospel choir is both powerful and comical (“I love being gay. I love gay people, I do, I do. I think we’re better than other people, I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I do, I totally do.” Skip to 3:15 in the video below to watch). The texts Pendleton pulls from—well, he didn’t write them himself. But the way he presented these texts is new. Pendleton’s Revival upends the very notion of originality in new media, because everything is simultaneously entirely recycled and entirely novel.
*I use this descriptor loosely.
**Little note on word usage: Curation isn’t a real entry at dictionary.com, and I am fairly certain that my old Word (may it rest in peace) scribbled a red squiggly line every time I tried to use the word. Curation oh so conveniently rhymes with nation, so I totally get why it’s used here, but I wonder if its usage will continue to climb and if it will secure a spot in our cultural lexicon. Who knows, maybe curation will be a contender for Word of the Year 2011.