Who has a busy life? I know I do. In fact, almost everyone I know does. Juggling family, work, study, all the household chores and trying to squeeze in a life as well – this seems to describe everyone in 2017.
As a PhD student and educator, I spend a lot of time online – researching, reading articles, connecting with others on Twitter and (yes, I admit it!) admiring pretty pictures of yummy food on Pinterest. One thing that happens to me all the time is that I only find the best article, the most interesting infographic or the yummiest recipe when I am in the middle of something else, and I really have no time! I’m busy! And so, I save it for later. I will pin it, or favourite it, or email it to myself. Of course, later never comes – and I have loads of unread emails, lists of links and hundreds of bookmarks that I honestly know I will never come back to – and really, do I need to? After all, I have great searching skills. Surely if I’ve discovered it once, I can find it again if and when I want it? And thus the question: is it better to save it for later, or to let it flow past me, trusting that I will find what I need, when I need it?
Despite the hundreds of unread, unloved ‘saves’ that I have made in my lifetime, I am still convinced that it is worth it. Even though I have confidence in my searching skills, I still don’t take chances when it comes to finding things again online – here’s a few reasons why.
the internet these days is very big – and a lot of the content on the internet is user-created. This is one of the reasons I love the internet so much – rather than only being able to access information from officially sanctioned (published) voices, we can now access content and information created and shared by anyone with an internet connection. While this has led to a lot of rubbish online, it also means we have more to learn from than ever before. However, this also means that the item you have discovered may not have any useful metadata attached to it.
Metadata is the information about information that makes it easy to search for and find. When content is officially published, details such as the title, author’s name, subject headings, ISBN etc (i.e. the metadata) are attached – either printed on the item or electronically attached. User created content may not have this type of metadata, and if it does, it might not be meaningful for searching. It might be a photograph with no title, a recipe for Chilli that someone has shared on Tumblr with the hashtags #yummy’ and #dinner next Monday’ or a blog with a long, obscure or unrelated name. So much great stuff is, I am sure, buried, nameless, published only in a Facebook post, and shared on Diigo with a completely irrelevant tag (like ‘this is good’ or ‘idea for next week’). Searching for these things can be almost impossible, especially if you are looking for that particular piece of content (say that one random blog post you read 4 months ago, or that vegan chilli recipe with no tomatoes) because even if you use a super search string like “yummy chilli” -tomatoes odds are, it will be lost deep on the millionth page of Google.
a lot of great stuff that we discover online is completely through serendipity, and while effective searching will return a lot of content, Google will simply not find everything. You may be searching for an item that is sitting somewhere Google doesn’t access – not only lots of social media content but also sites that require a login, like a journal database or library catalogue. You may have seen it once – briefly appearing on your Twitter stream, perhaps when the author published it – but this is the only time you will see it unless you go directly back to that source. Saving things when you see them can be well worth the time required to click ‘save to Pocket’ or ‘send to G Drive’. Even if you can’t link directly to the source within the database, linking to the Paywall gives you enough information to access it again if you decide that you really need it.
Collection or Curation?
However; there is a reason I called this post ‘digital content curation in a busy life’ and not ‘saving stuff for later is good’. The thing is, simply pinning or bookmarking ‘for later’ is not digital content curation – it is collecting. We need to consider the difference between digital content curation and collecting, and keep this front of mind when online.
Digital content curation is what we should do when we find something really good. Digital content curation goes beyond a simple save. It is when we strategically select an item to be added to a collection, which is being compiled for a specific purpose. Collecting is additive, but interestingly, curation is subtractive – what you leave out is almost more important than what you include. A great way to think about collection and curation described by Frank Chimero in his post about sorting a mass. Consider collection as a bowl of loose pearls, and curation as a pearl necklace. Collection is like a bowl of pearls in that the individual pearls may be of great value, but they are pretty useless, just gathered together in the bowl. Curation iswhat happens when particular pearls are selected from the bowl, and strung into a beautiful necklace. The pearls now have purpose – they have been carefully selected and added to the necklace in a particular order. The necklace, which has fewer pearls than in the bowl, but which can be publicly admired and worn, is worth more than the sum of its parts.
When we curate content, we add an annotation to each item, to explain to others why this piece was chosen, and how it fits within the collection. This makes the individual items more meaningful for others, and brings to collection together as a whole resource. As you can see, digital content curation is time-consuming. So why, in a post about busy people, would I be extolling the benefits of digital content curation?
First: it does not replace the simple save.
Digital content curation is a purposeful act which takes time. So it is important to still quickly ‘save’ stuff when we see it. However, if you go back through your saves, and see something that is really good, that would add to a collection you are already curating or would springboard a curated collection, definitely take the time to move it out of your ‘collection’ and into your curated resources.
Second:digital content curation creates a resource for you and others
When you have a collection of random links, the individual items may be useful, but the list itself means nothing. A carefully curated collection is a resource that stands alone. It can be useful to you – when you go back to these resources, your annotation will remind you of why you saved it and how it will be useful – and it will be of value to others if they are seeking an overview/introduction/entry into a topic. Creating a curated collection also makes a group of resources easily shareable and useable – it will ‘travel’ with you as it will (more often than not) exist online, and be publicly accessible to you and others whenever you need it.
Third: a curated collection is worth the time and may eventually save time
A curated collection will take time. However it is far more likely that you will go back to a collection which has been carefully created than you ever will to a random link you saved and emailed to yourself six months ago. Also, just as you invest time in developing curated collections, so too do others. Seeking out others’ curated collections can be a fantastic way to begin a search journey. People don’t (usually) curate items of poor quality – that would be a waste of time! And so when you discover a curated collection of information or resources, you are more likely to have discovered something of value – which can be a greater time-saver than simply searching, and having to evaluate each item yourself. Caution though! Just because someone has curated something doesn’t mean it is completely accurate/reliable/valid for your purposes – but the chances of higher quality are greater.
So the role of digital content curation in a busy life is to take back some control over infowhelm and content chaos. Knowing that you have carefully curated collections can be comforting, particularly in areas where you work extensively or are continually referring to and developing ideas. Maybe it is because I’m a librarian at heart, but I really love curating. I don’t always do it well, and I don’t always have the time to go beyond the save, but when I am working on a project or researching a topic, going to the effort of creating a resource that I know will support my work is satisfying and rewarding. It’s like comfort food for the learner’s soul.