Curated content and the demand for excellence

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Posted on September 7, 2016

For the past few years we’ve been experiencing a shift towards curated content emphasizing customization and personalization. We are demanding more, but by more we mean better, to filter the mass amounts of noise on the Internet. The trend toward curated content started a few years ago and while it is no longer new or novel, we now expect, to some degree, a level of filtering and it seems to be reaching some sort of zenith. According to a Princeton study, Internet tracking has intensified to something called ‘fingerprinting‘ which surveils your computer for behavioral information, such as your battery life and browser window, to determine your online activity. For some time, Google has tracked searches to give you personalized suggestions based on your prior keyword searches. Now it is moving towards even more individual services that tailor search away from the common experience to a more individualized environment.

Within the social media sphere, platforms are constantly updating their algorithms to show you more content from people they think you like the most. Twitter rearranged its feed to show tweets in non-chronological order to prioritize quality over quantity. The platform’s ‘While you were away‘ feature relieves you of the fear of missing tweets from those (Twitter determines) you care about most. Rather than reading it all, it assumes you’d prefer to read the tweets that count.

This is part of the idea that, arguably, mainstream culture as we know it has become fragmented. This is most obvious with music. The rise of streaming services mean you don’t need to rely on the radio. There are still top 40 and songs of the summer. Certain artists and songs still appeal to the masses, but there is less of a cultural consensus of what ‘good’ music is or should be and more independent blogs, critics, and services than ever before. However, the idea of a fractured ‘mainstream’ — whether or good or bad — is extending to other spheres.

Recently, Nathan Heller wrote in the New Yorker that ‘language of common values has lost common meaning.’ To a certain degree, Heller sees this as part of an overarching trend to the rise of personalization, as we remove ourselves from the truly public sphere to one that reflects our own beliefs and discourses. Our curated content feeds suggest we are independent thinkers and individuals — it’s how we’re self-identifying. From there, he talks about the unassailability of Trump’s linguistic nonsense, that he predictably and reliably divorces words from their meaning. ‘To know what Trump means, despite the words that he is saying, you have to understand — or think you understand — the message before he opens his mouth.’ This is a leap his followers are willing to make. Similarly, to know what your consumers are looking for before they even try to look for it, is what marketers have attempted to do since the beginning of time and what the Internet is getting increasingly good at.

Heller makes the grander point that the rhetoric of change has become disconnected from the process of actually making it happen, not just online but everywhere. For example, we can all identify with the word ‘feminism’ but we’ve become disassociated with what this really mean on a day-to-day scale. This is generally the worry for the Internet in particular: that online behavior doesn’t necessarily translate into real world action. On a smaller, shallower level, this applies to cultural trends and terms. What we all ‘know’ and consider as a part of ‘us’ isn’t what it used to be. This becomes more pronounced as the generational divide between those who didn’t grow up with the Internet and those who did becomes more stark, with the latter moving into the workforce and exercising greater purchasing power. As the younger generation shifts into decision-making and directing roles, the comparisons are more obvious and direct between what one group wants out of work, out of each other, and our lives in general. And on a search-engine scale, the more personalized the search results, the less universal the meaning to the search terms and the information attached to them.

With personalization and withdrawal from mass consumption there have been some techniques to make the best of both worlds. Within this trend, newsletters have gone from spammy email blasts to a more sophisticated form of content delivery. Aggregators of taste, style, and substance have risen to the fore: similar to the automation of searches and social media, we prefer to have things automatically filtered, such as through the lens of an appointed purveyor of whatever it is you’re searching for. For example, Lena Dunhum, of HBO’s Girls fame, has a weekly newsletter called Lenny Letter that delivers curated content to your inbox. The Skimm aims to make American news more digestible by giving you the top headlines for the day, complete with pop culture references and policy explanations. For an even more personal touch, TinyLetter has quietly found its own corner of the Internet and its helping fledgling companies and writers distribute their content to people who truly want it. Acquired by MailChimp in 2011, the service allows anyone to send out a newsletter — as often or as little as you like — to a relatively small list of subscribers. As many individuals use TinyLetter by means to keep in touch with a group of friends, colleagues, or small fan base as new and growing organizations. With this kind of content, we create the sense of a conversation that is more targeted and more private.

Ironically, the very things that are providing this illusion of privacy are, perhaps, the most invasive. The entire idea of curated content is only possible with mining more and more of your personal data and online behavior. And this is leap we are willing to make: we’re exchanging the mass public for the seemingly private by forfeiting up details; in attempting to gain more control over the content we see, we are sacrificing control over access to our ‘individualized’ information. However, most of us give this up willingly, or at least, prefer not to think about it too hard, in our search for both substance and convenience.

In another form, the demand for excellence recently played out in popular culture and music — namely album drops — very clearly. Dropping an album has become a bit of an all-encompassing thing: there’s the announcement, the hype, the previews, the leaks, often there are sites dedicated not to the artist, but the album itself. Afterward, there are endless think pieces on the relative importance or irrelevance of said album. Frank Ocean is a reclusive artist who let four years pass between Channel Orange, his first critically acclaimed album, and his second, Blonde. The public outcry from Frank Ocean fans for a new album was loud and only became louder and more expectant when the reported release date for Blonde came and went with no sign of new music. Online, things went from excited, to angry, to betrayed. Few artists can put the world on pause, but those who do are the ones who let the anticipation build to breaking point.

However, the pressure mounts with this kind of discipline. The expectation is that if you are going to make people wait, you are doing so for a good reason. As a popular musician, failure to deliver on your restraint is to play a dangerous game with your fans’ idealized version of you, which is partially why, when done well, it pays off. Retreating has its own cache these days. Patience is a virtue that has left most of us and today it signals a level of self-control that few seem to possess anymore: it makes you a grown-up of the Internet age, capable of a level of resistance, a dignified power move.

But this a remove we value, perhaps because most are incapable, or perhaps because sometimes there is an overwhelming amount of information. In the search for individualized content, there is something to be said for giving people both a good enough product and enough time to miss you, because it means your product is so uniquely you that you can afford to gamble on it. The bigger the gamble, the bigger the get — while other artists focus on being nothing if not consistent, with new release after new release, some choose to remind us that there is a difference between being timely and being timeless.

Of course, within a digital world and within public affairs, intent still matters and decides timelines. Crises often require quick responses, and SEO efforts are different from true content creation. It is easier to be choosy from an artistic standpoint than a business one. But still, there is some untold magic in restraint. Within the zeitgeist, we’re looking to those who remove themselves to a certain degree because they seem to be the ones that dictate rather than mimic, that lead rather than follow. Since we can communicate with anyone en masse, the exclusivity and seemingly intimate nature of communicating with a few — or communicating with a purpose — is appealing. It’s also a luxury that comes with talent and confidence in that talent.

But, whether we have the luxury or not, there is a palpable shift toward wanting to feel like we’re getting such an experience. We’ve become a demanding set: we want the access to all of the information on the Internet and we also want special content, whether it’s in the form of genius or something tailored just for us. And if Heller is right, it’s because this is how we showcase ourselves to the world: these are the excellent things that I like, these are the personal selections that create my online personality. At 28, Frank Ocean is part of the generation that straddles the Internet line of remembering a time before, but also having had it for most of his life. His recent album includes a one-minute speech about being dumped for refusing to add someone as a Facebook friend. Like most of us, he both celebrates and rebukes the Internet age. While he is exceptional in many other ways, in this is one in which he’s just like the rest of us.

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