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Curation, attention deficit and the exaflood

Overwhelmed by a conversation about being overwhelmed. I have a column in Tweetdeck devoted to all mentions of “curation”. Added shortly before I started searching for a working definition of curation, it was the perfect solution to the problem of keeping up with all the latest murmurings on a topic that continues to fascinate me. Content on the subject was being published at a digestible pace, and it seemed we all had time to reflect, analyze and, if we cared to do so, publish our own thoughts, either in comments or on our blogs. Of course, there has always been noise—automated, RSS-fed or query-driven bots aren’t easy to filter out, and this is the path that many feel will lead to success in social media. Nor are the digital brown-nosers, retweeting verbatim the words of their chosen gurus, without adding anything at all of value. But even with these annoyances, the curation conversation stream, it seems in retrospect, was relatively clear, lively and exciting.

This week, I realized that I’m no longer able to follow and participate as easily as just a few months ago. Indeed, since my first curation-related post on June 11th of this year, 3,996 additional posts, whose titles contain the phrase “curation”, have been published on blogs across the social web.

From this Neil Perkin piece, we get a quote by Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

“Between the dawn of civilisation and 2003, five exabytes of information were created. In the last two days, five exabytes of information have been created, and that rate is accelerating”.

“Exaflood” is a term coined by Brett Swanson, and it’s an interesting way to imagine what we’re up against, from both the infrastructural and intellectual perspectives.

A familiar feeling sets in—that of being overwhelmed by possibilities.

Ask anyone that truly knows me: I have too many ideas for my own good. These ideas are just as often great as they are a distraction from other ideas, more worthy of my devotion. But singular devotion has never been fully possible for me, the way that you’ll meet someone every so often that tells you they knew they wanted to be a firefighter since they were 6 years old—and followed through with this dream to its fruition.  Maybe this condition is merely symptomatic of my lifelong struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I’m probably just more predisposed to being overwhelmed in this way, and my ADD exacerbates it to the point that I spread myself far too thin, putting in a little work here, a little development there, some planning for this and that, while ultimately getting nowhere with anything. My two biggest achievements thus far in life (degree from UT and Social Media Manager job at Bazaarvoice) came through a willing, conscious effort to maintain a sustained focus that is uncomfortably contrary to my nature.

In Neil Gaiman’s story, “Calliope”, his Sandman character casts a deeply-debilitating spell on a human villain: that of an unyielding, constant barrage of good ideas. Without the ability to execute on them, our villain feels bludgeoned by them. To a far lesser extent, I can identify. Before seeing a thought through to its resolution or transformation into something of value, I tend to encounter another “shiny” thought and pursue it with the intellectual excitement I once had for the thought I now abandon. People without ADD encounter this, too. In a sense, social media has led us here, to a place where we all feel overwhelmed to various degrees. Perhaps others don’t become quite as overwhelmed, but none of us possess the mental resources to categorize and process the swirling mix of ideas that spins around us nearly every time we interact via social media. It’s impossible.

One of the reasons we create, more than in any other time in history, is because we have been given access through technology to millions upon millions of others—a potential audience that didn’t and couldn’t exist before the Web and social media. So now that our creative endeavors don’t have to remain our little secret; now that we can almost guarantee that our work will be seen, we are driven to create it at a feverish tempo, and driven to share it with as many people as we’re able. Similarly, now that we have access to this fire hose of information that contains, somewhere in the stream, the stuff we’re really after, we become fixated. After awhile, we become overwhelmed.

Curation maximizes cognitive efficiency.

Our typical style of consumption:

  1. We turn on the fire hose (Twitter, Alltop, whatever)
  2. We adjust the signal (try to create streams more suited to our tastes, make columns in our Twitter clients)
  3. We simultaneously absorb and refine—but it’s still too much

The ultimate promise of curation:

  1. We are delivered only the content that meets our predefined criteria (and it’s enough to digest without being overwhelmed)

We’re not there yet.

That much is obvious. But I’m seeing some promising, if scattered, developments that indicate we’re well on our way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I see something shiny I simply must attend to.

Bonus! Ian's latest recommended reading on content curation:

  1. Content Curation for Twitter: How to be a thought leader DJ
  2. Content & Curation: An epic poem
  3. Disposable Content

© 2016 Ian Greenleigh