The limits of automation and the curator’s role

"Kneading Clay" by Sawyer Isabelle

Frank posted earlier about Popping the Filter Bubble, arguing that there wasn’t a real problem. Although, as he argues, the concerns about the filter bubble are framed as a conflict to sell the idea, it doesn’t mean the filter bubble is not a real and potentially problematic phenomenon. As he shows using the example of his, editors and curators have an increasingly important role to play.

Filters require intention

Filtering makes social media platforms more appealing and useful. Algorithms select what you see on Facebook and Google Plus. Even Twitter does. It used to show every update of the people you followed until @replies got filtered out. The change brought by these filters is that those willing to expose themselves to new subjects or dissenting views must work towards “intentional surprise”, as Frank wrote. And those unwilling to do so aren’t forced to confront other views any more. This “noise” filtering adds barriers to discovery and perhaps to dialogue which must be intentionally overcome. It’s a change. Problems may arise when these filters work in secret and can’t be tweaked by the users.

The limits of automation

Fortunately, the services which relied heavily on automation until now are aware of these problems. They are coming to the conclusion that algorithms cannot solve all problems. It takes a human editor to craft great experiences with the right mix of familiarity and novelty, confirmation and healthy dissent. Karyn Campbell’s Return of the Editor: Why Human Filters are the Future of the Web on Sparksheet quotes interesting numbers which suggest that, as we’re figuring out what algorithms are good at and what they’re not so good at, editors and curators are given a bigger role in organisations like Facebook.

The curator’s art

To understand where the editor’s art lies, we might turn to Maria Popova, curator extraordinaire of Brain Pickings. Her article: Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance explains it with clarity. The value “human sensemakers and curiosity sherpas”, as she calls them, bring is tremendous in a world in which everything is accessible but not necessarily accessed.
Of course, you won’t find every post of generalist curated blogs such as Brain Pickings,, Bobulate, or Boing Boing interesting. But skimming through them, you find gems that often light fires of life-long interests. As the community exemplifies, real magic happens when technology is harnessed by editors to craft great experiences.

Image credit: Kneading, Soyer Isabelle.

I wrote “The limits of automation and the curator’s role” on the blog, it was originally published on November 5, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.