Curating creativity to curating content – are we being sculpted?

Dr A Bell, Principal

An edited version of this article was published in The Weekend Australian on Saturday 27 August 2011.

In 1994, Prime Minister Paul Keating launched his government’s new cultural policy Creative Nation marrying recognition for the arts with Australia’s future economic prosperity. It was probably the first time that the value of the Arts and a strong arts industry was articulated so convincingly in the context of improved economic benefits for the country. It was also possibly the first time in Australia’s history that the word creative was identified as a valuable intellectual commodity. Since then, exploring the characteristics and applications of creativity has attracted researchers and business worldwide; the focus on creativity as a path to improvement and its perceived role in superior problem solving, thinking and entrepreneurial success has become an industry in itself.

Unfortunately, governments and bureaucracies (including education) see creativity primarily as a process, a tool for a solution, rather than something far more essential, elusive and enmeshed with sophisticated interpersonal communication and enhanced understanding of our world. According to, creativity as an imaginative condition, was really first used by Wordsworth in the early nineteenth century. His poetry was imbued with a regard for human interaction with the sublime in nature — hardly process-driven or business-oriented.

Creativity as a unique and special trait has been inexorably linked to the arts — visual, literary and performing – and not necessarily connected with the future success of industries and corporations. The word has, perhaps unfortunately, become commonplace, appearing in association with other management preoccupations like leadership (‘Creative Leadership’). The original definition for what was considered creative has depreciated from being a rarefied condition to being prosaic. Its entry to everyday vernacular as a descriptor for any deviation from pedestrian thought and activity is dispiriting, as there is no suitable word to replace its original sense. Some now postulate that creativity can even be taught and that the creative process can be identified and learned. Perhaps, in a limited way this might be possible in the context of leadership, but I doubt Wordsworth and the canons of historical art would concur.

Unlike the industrial focus of education systems of previous centuries, contemporary schools are interested in teaching and learning programmes that are collaborative and engaging; less about content and more about judicious application of knowledge and understanding.  They also want their students to be creative. Art Costa identifies creating, imagining and innovating as one of his Habits of Mind to encourage students to find different ways to solve problems. It can be argued that the word creative in these contexts does not represent the unique and transcendent characteristics of a truly creative concept or result, but rather refers to the different or the new — in fact, lateral thinking.

Education theorists and business gurus have remodelled creativity to apply in the most general sense to almost every circumstance, to the processes employed to undertake daily business. To use this interpretation of creativity is to reduce the rare and intricate natural talent of true creativity to a tool that at its most base level will simply encourage us to look for other possibilities that may be better than the obvious. While there is nothing wrong with seeking and exhausting possibilities to arrive at the best solution, the question to ask is whether looking beyond the basic is the same as creativity.

As with the re-invention and domestication of creativity, it seems that now curatorship — another specialised art term — has also been diluted through its appropriation for general use. It is being used to describe filtering or editing of content — in particular online content. Traditionally, we understand a curator to be an art museum specialist collecting, interpreting and presenting objects (particularly art objects resulting from the very best creative minds) for research and for public display. The word ‘curator’ is a Middle English word that derives from the Latin curare which dates from the mid 17th century, meaning to care for (cura) or attend to. It is now frequently appropriated by social media journalists and marketing wizards to describe their professional roles. Maria Popova notes that:

Like any appropriated buzzword, the term ‘curation’ has become nearly vacant of meaning … curation online is premised on the idea that a curator with a point of view culls content around a theme that he or she deems of cultural significance.

Examples of the exponential up-take of the term ‘curate’ and all its new versions, include a bank executive describing their customer engagement strategy as ‘curating memories’; an online author announcing content curation to be a new kind of authorship; an article on innovation applauding the emergence of ‘choice curation’; a journalist describing how they will ‘curate a list’ of the world’s 100 most powerful women; and a Twitter profile which describes the account owner as ‘curating interestingness’. If we understand curating to actually be about careful specialist scholarship, how does this translate to the act (as opposed to the art) of curating information in social media and business contexts?

The imaginative use of language and its reapplication in different contexts to enhance meaning is not new, but the disturbance and discomfit of devaluing words like ‘creativity’ and ‘curator’ through commonplace circulation, is that there are no synonyms for them in their original context. Their unique strength and character becomes cliché; everyone can be creative, everyone can curate anything.

Recently, Facebook announced it had reached 750 million users, Twitter tweeted it was recording 200 million tweets per day and Google+ was launched. My Space was sold, no doubt because it wasn’t competitive with Facebook, and Linkedin is well, linked in, with a reported new member joining every minute. With so many members and users and so much virtual information available to everyone who is connected, a search and select process is a must, but should that be self-driven or are the large social media vehicles like Facebook and Twitter sifting for us? Does the claim to curating content articulated by many on-line users refer to their care and scholarship, or rather an increasing prevalence of personal selectivity or filtering? Does their claim to content curatorship actually equate to opinion engineering and if so, does it matter providing we are cognisant of the bias? Jean Westcott talks about trusting content curators, but why ‘trust’ if we are relying on them for, as she implies, ‘everything’:

I use Twitter to follow news in my various fields of interest and to gain the insights of trusted ‘curators’ on everything from the silly, the sad, the profound and the mundane.

In an article posted by Maria Popova about Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble: Algorithm vs Curator & the Value of Serendipity, she asks whether it is necessarily a good thing that the web filters content for us. It can be argued that ‘old’ media (newspapers, radio, television) have always been selective and in more recent times their reach has spread beyond a single city or country. In fact, there has been global sanitising of the media networks’ news headlines owing to the immediacy of access to information (including each other’s information) thanks to effective and fast new communication technologies. The question here however, is whether the role of ‘curator’ is any more sophisticated in these online contexts, compared to the ‘old’ media position of ‘editor’. Online writers are calling themselves curators of everything that involves a process of selection, but are they scholars with expertise in a particular field and are they conservers of objects (real or virtual)?

While a concern here may be about the right to purloin specialised language like ‘creativity’ and ‘curator’ and randomly change the application and meaning with overuse, it could be argued from a postmodern perspective that this is legitimate adaptation. But, there is a more insidious implication when curatorship combines with content, knowledge and communication reservoirs; there is the inference that deep care, research and valuable scholarship underpins the role. More likely, our access to content via online curators is being manipulated at its worst and randomly distilled at its best.  Therefore, are our views being sculpted through the social media networks and by the search engines and, if so, will they become the most successful and powerful propaganda vehicles in history?

Steven Rosenbaum considers that he was:

no longer a journalist in the old sense of the word. I’d become a curator—a filter—helping the audience share stories … And today the idea of journalist as curator is front and centre, as the tools to make and tell stories are now in the hands of anyone … the old barriers to entry have evaporated. Curation, Community and the Future of News, (Summer 2011)

He also talks about a ‘human curated web’ and the unmanageability of the volumes of data emerging daily. But filtering and sharing is not curating, just as editing is not journalism, and a creative genius does not reside in everyone. Perhaps to bring this article’s theme full circle, Rosenbaum is also the author of Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers are Creators — a far cry from Keating’s Creative Nation where we were invited to imagine and develop an inspired future nearly two decades ago. What constitutes a Curation Nation is a scary thought, especially if we assume the traits of selecting, sifting and filtering apply.

Meanwhile, our schools expend considerable energy teaching young people about the importance of being curious in relation to their world; understanding, recognising and celebrating true creativity and scholarship; the imperative to make judicious decisions; and, amongst many other things, the value and the pitfalls of on-line information and social networking. But, if information is filtered by content curators before young people can learn to discriminate, how will they understand the bias and suppose there is more information available, when they can’t see it or access it? The question for them needs to be: when you conduct an on-line search and the results appear, ask yourself not only whether it’s trustworthy, but also think about what’s missing from the search results; that is, what’s not listed that you might expect to see … then ask yourself why.


Caroline Howard. Who Are The Most Powerful Women In The World? Retrieved 07 July, 2011, website:

creative. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 09 July, 2011, from website:

Maria Popova. In a new world of informational abundance content curation is a new kind of authorship. Retrieved 14 June, 2011, website:

Maria Popova. The Filter Bubble: Algorithims vs the Curator and the Value of Serendipity. Retrieved July 11, 2011, website:

Steven Rosenbaum. Curation, Community and the Future of News. Retrieved 07 July, 2011, website:

Haydn Shaughnessy. The Top 10 Innovation Challenges for 2020. Retrieved 14 June, 2011, website:

Jean Westcott. Does Facebook Hurt or Help Your Friendships? Retrieved 11 July, 2011, website:

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