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Ideas of March

Ideas of March [Detail]

A year ago, this very day, we wrote a short piece titled Ideas of March as part of Chris Shiflett’s call to arms (of the same name), which encouraged a reappraisal of the balance between shortform and longform writing, urging a return to reflective writing.

Arguing for the need for a renewed balance between shortform (shallow) and longform (deep) content; and the need for a refocusing on original, longform content to counterbalance a move towards linked, shortform content, we wrote:

There’s nothing wrong with Twitter, and it certainly has its uses, however, working longform allows you to clarify your thinking; sharpens the mind; and maps into other areas of practice.

A year later we still hold those sentiments to be true so, when we received an email from Mr Shiflett inviting a number of writers, ourselves included, to celebrate the Ideas of March once again, it afforded a timely opportunity to reflect on a number of issues around writing, and its importance, that we’d been discussing.

Shiflett’s original call to arms revitalised many and, in a number of cases, proved the tonic for writers to dust down their ideas and start sharing them once again. Elliot Jay Stocks, writing yesterday, stated: “Last year’s post (by Shiflett) was the one single thing that got me back into writing, and I’m happy to say that the pace has stayed relatively healthy since then.”

When we wrote our first ‘Ideas of March’ piece, we believed - as we believe now - that there is immense value to both readers and writers through the creation of original content. Original content helps shape our collective knowledge and, when written with passion, can spark debate which, through dialogue, can result in our collective thinking moving forward.

Not all content is original, however. As publishing has evolved, twin tracked by the evolution of new publishing platforms - like Tumblr, for example - a content continuum has begun to emerge which represents different types of published content and, equally, different motivations for both creating and sharing the written word.

A spectrum exists which spans everything from the original or ‘created’ (new thought, wrought from thin air and strong black coffee) to the discovered or ‘curated’ (second hand thought, wrought from a culture of research and signposting towards others’ thoughts).

Original content and signposted content both have a place - and there is certainly a role for signposting - however, we feel that the real value lies in the former, contributing new knowledge… In short, in writing. (Bringing us back to Mr Shiflett’s motivation behind the Ideas of March.)

Let Me Quote That For You

There was a golden age when the writer’s craft was celebrated. Synthesising thought and reflecting on the world we inhabit was something to be valued. Make a discovery? Write about that discovery. Offer your opinion on it. Since then, the emergence of platforms like Tumblr and its associated culture of reblogging, have given rise to a testimony to the reduction of the level of reflection once afforded, to nothing more than a ‘like’ and a bumping on of others’ content to one’s audience.

A consequence of this move towards signposting, over the creation of original content, has been a focusing on systems to codify this point and click model. The Curator’s Code – a project launched last week by Maria Popova with input from Tina Roth Eisenberg and design by Kelli Anderson – has given rise to an often heated discussion about the need to acknowledge the sources of content shared on the web.

At its heart lies a proposal for a method to honour the work of those sharing links through, as Popova puts it, “a system that codifies the attribution of discovery in curation as a currency of the information economy, a system that treats discovery as the creative labor that it is.”

Whilst we believe in the importance of accurate citation and offering credit where it’s due, we believe the focus should be shifted from citing discovers to citing creators. A not so subtle, but important point.

Rather than encourage a ‘Curator’s Code’ we should perhaps encourage a ‘Creator’s Code’, one which foregrounds the value of independent thinking and the addition of value. Rather than aggregating links, why not offer an informed opinion on those links, or even better, create something original yourself?

Whether we should call the sharing of links ‘curation’ is another question up for debate, with some disagreeing with this choice of terminology in strong terms. Writing about the Curator’s Code in Stop Calling it Curation, Matt Langer states:

The business in which we’re all engaged when we’re tossing links around on the internet is simple ‘sharing’. […] But we should not delude ourselves for a moment into bestowing any special significance on this, because when we do this thing that so many of us like to call ‘curation’ we’re not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire.

While there’s arguably value in the filtering, editing and selection process - call it sharing or curation - it is by no means comparable to the process of creation. Matt Langer again hits the nail on the head in this regard:

…the often tortuous act of writing compared with the reading of someone else’s writing are two vastly different things, not just simple variations of unicode runes.

The problem with particular, some might argue, over-engineered ‘solutions’ like the Curator’s Code (reminiscent in its folly of the search for, and eventual discovery of, the ☃ character… for sarcasm) is that it serves to encourage a culture of endless linking, rather than a culture of reflection, not to mention creation of original content.

This comment, from one of the many discussion threads that followed the launch of the Curator’s Code, highlights another complication:

I feel like the problem is not that there isn’t some sort of universally recognised symbol, but rather a lot of sites just aren’t using best practices. The sites that aren’t doing a good job of sourcing aren’t going to magically start doing it once they have a nice bookmarklet to use.

As educators who face a perennial challenge to encourage our students to embrace accurate citation we understand the frustrations that a failure to cite sources properly can engender, however, we believe the solution to this problem doesn’t lie in adding another layer of complexity, which the Curator’s Code does.

Having to learn that ᔥ and ↬ mean ‘via’ and ‘hat tip’ respectively adds a layer of cognitive burden that, far from solving the problem of failure to give credit where it’s due, adds to confusion. This is only underpinned by the fact that we now have two symbols to decipher, further adding complexity. Marco Arment, who states forthrightly that the Curator’s Code is, “completely misguided,” summarises this line of thinking neatly:

First of all, readers aren’t going to learn what those symbols mean. The distinction between them is also unnecessary and will lead to more confusion.

On the distinction between the differentiation between references being either ‘via’ another discoverer or being due to a ‘hat tip’ he writes:

I’ve been running a hybrid articles-and-links blog here (↬DF) for a while, I wrote the function that added ‘via’ links to billions of reblogged posts on Tumblr, and I didn’t even know the difference between ‘via’ and ‘hat tip’ until today.

It’s very difficult to argue with this. What, pray tell, motivates one to deploy a set of newly minted symbols instead of existing, tried and tested terms i.e. via, or a set of existing conventions, i.e. hyperlinks or footnotes? Why replace an existing, working paradigm, with an obfuscated symbol: the hyperlink formerly known as ‘via’?

It’s a hard enough task to appreciate the value that lies in providing an accurate trail of references; adding a further level of granularity to this will, inevitably, lead to confusion. One can imagine the inevitable conversation: “Run that by me once more, what’s the difference between the ᔥ and ↬ symbols again?”

Over and Above

In an excellent ReadWriteWeb article titled Down the Rabbit Hole with Hyperlinks in Hand, Scott M. Fulton III comments on Popova’s Curator’s Code as follows:

For about three-and-a-half years, I ran the news department of a major web site where I had one hard and fast rule, the utterance of which will surely bring back headaches for my former writers. The rule was called ‘Over & Above’, and it boiled down to this: We would print nothing without the inclusion of original reporting.

If a story was inspired elsewhere, we would give full attribution to both the source and the author. But we would add original reporting - and by that, I didn’t mean, “original ruminations from the safety of one’s armchair.”

It’s this last sentence that’s critical. Citation is, of course, important; we’re all for credit where credit’s due, however, the opportunity should be embraced wherever possible, to add original reporting and a fresh perspective. The web is overflowing with content. There’s room for more of course, but we should - as writers - strive to add value at every step of the way. Rather than simply add one more link (and very little more), we should instead aim to at least offer an opinion along the way.

As Fulton puts it, “The balance, if there is to be one, is to assert that our job … is to add value - if not as a whole, in at least in substantively large part.”

If all you’re creating is one more link, what have you added, other than noise to what is an already noisy place? Opinionated criticism adds to the conversation, your contribution may even offer additional insight, a different perspective or new thinking.

It’s precisely this sentiment that underpinned our enthusiastic participation in the Ideas of March in 2011, when Mr Shiflett first promoted the idea. One more link on Twitter offers value, of course, but even greater value lies in offering an opinion through a more thoughtful and longer form piece of prose. By all means point your audience to what you’ve ‘curated’, but give them more than a link, give them informed opinion. Better still, address the ratio of original content and signposted content so that you err on the former, tell your audience - critically - why you signpost what you signpost (preferably in more than 140 characters).

Fulton summarises this line of thinking neatly:

While I appreciate the nobility of promoting an ethical concept [The Curator’s Code] as something cool to do, I often wonder whether the web as a whole has taken the linking business way too far.

When linking becomes the focus at the expense of expressing an opinion or contributing original knowledge, what is one adding, other than noise to drown out the signal? Of course its important to attribute what we’ve learned to where we learned it from, but if we are to offer anything of substance and value it should be creativity, first and foremost. Going ‘Over & Above’, adding to the canon of knowledge, suggesting, questioning and exploring.

What’s Your Thinking?

Creativity has many guises, and the written word has always existed on a continuum ranging from the disposable and frivolous to the durable and profound.

We believe that there is value and opportunity in both the creation of content and the knowledge contributed by sharing and spreading the words of others. But the balance must lie in favour of the creator rather than the distributors of original content. By throwing praise, as the Curator’s Code has suggested, on the discovery of a link, we are, in the words of Fulton, “Confusing reproduction with creativity, and confusing source with origin.”

Finding a particular link first should not deserve a medal or a special unicode character. Original content, on the other hand, should be worthy of such attention. Perhaps we should promote a unicode symbol indicating that instead.

Whilst the hyperlink might serve as the backbone of the web, tying together threads of knowledge, the web offers us the opportunity to do so much more than mere linking - to offer insight, opinion and criticality. The Ideas of March offer us an opportunity to push further, to offer our own thoughts and share them with others.

Chris Cornutt has compiled a list of contributors to the Ideas of March appeal. Once you’ve worked your way through those, the #ideasofmarch hashtag has you covered for the remainder of the month and, hopefully, for some time to come.

We fully intend to answer Mr Shiflett’s call to arms, we’d urge you to do so too. The web has enough links, why not take this opportunity to add some original content as well?

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