July 14, 2021

Content Curation: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Malinda Gagnon

Content curation—the process of selecting relevant content based on a particular user’s preference—is a content delivery approach used by most social media platforms, news outlets, and pretty much any business that disseminates information to a target audience.  

Facebook is well-known for their content-filtering algorithm, which delivers a unique feed of content specifically curated for every individual user. What information that algorithm uses when deciding what you see and what you don’t is anyone’s guess, but it likely includes things like which posts you’ve loved, liked, or commented on in the past, what groups you follow, which pages you interact with, and who’s on your friends list (and what THEY like and post about on Facebook).

Other social platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok employ the same kinds of algorithms, as do most companies (think SEO optimization or sharing content for a target audience/customer. A company making almond milk ice cream will likely curate news and stories that advocate for a dairy-free lifestyle on their website, social channels, advertisements, and newsletters).

But is content curation a good thing? A bad thing?  

The short answer: Yes.  

Content creation, much like an ax, is a tool that can be employed in a multitude of ways, some supremely beneficial, some more nefarious.  

Let’s break down the benefits, the consequences, and why we all rely on it.

The Good

Content curation in its most basic form is about identifying the most relevant content for a specific audience—be they podcast listeners, book club members, or tech enthusiasts—and then relaying that content to them. From a marketing perspective, this is a great way of maximizing a person’s engagement with the content.

This post, for instance, is made of curated content. I’m curating information from my research and experience with content curation, then sharing what I believe will be the most relevant bits of information based on the interests of the target audience (in this case: You).

In a perfect world, I’d do a spot-on job of highlighting the right relevant bits in an easy-to-digest way, so you quickly get the information you need without needing to rifle through pages and pages of junk that isn’t relevant to you. Content curation would make your life better and simpler.  

The Bad

Let’s say you hit “like” on posts about your friend’s dog on Facebook. Facebook might then start showing you more pet and dog-related posts. That's really not a big deal, even if you don’t much care for other people’s dogs at all.

But when you think about broader topics that affect the larger society (i.e. politics, religion, culture), well, that’s very different. To make matters worse, we often don’t know how these algorithms even operate. Are they filtering content based on user profiles? Or behavior? Or connections to other users?

There’s a really interesting study from 2018 done by the Web Foundation where they tracked Facebook users in Argentina over the course of three months. They created identical profiles but noticed that the information Facebook served up was different for each user. And they couldn't determine why it was different.  

This research suggests that the curation algorithm may not be about behavior or a user’s unique profile at all. There’s a very real possibility that Facebook just wants to test the way users react to different kinds of content, using one profile as the “control group” and other similar profiles as the proverbial guinea pigs. [Insert conspiracy theory here.]  

One of the researchers behind that studied said, “Personalized information diets that users are unable to control risk exacerbating divisions between and among communities that increasingly lack a shared body of news and therefore a shared understanding of reality.”  

That’s the major problem with curated content: the algorithm ultimately limits the kinds of content you see, creating a sort of reality bubble where everyone assumes that their opinions or beliefs are held by the majority of people in their community because that’s the majority of content they see.  

The Ugly

Content curation is nothing new, and it’s here to stay.

Newspapers have long curated their content based on target readers, with senior editors deciding what stories get published (and that decision could also be swayed by influential donors and advertisers).  

When we ask people for advice or information, we ask a curated number of contacts—typically friends and family members we already know and trust because of similar interests, experiences, and values.  

On Twitter and TikTok, we filter content on our feeds based on hashtags, and what appears at the top of our feeds is determined by an algorithm.  

Even when we look up information on the internet, search engines curate the number of options we see based on what their algorithms define as most relevant. According to Forbes, the first page of search results on Google receives about 70% of clicks while second-page results come in below 6%. So the 10 or so options Google’s content curation algorithm cooks up is likely all users will see.  

Whether you’re a fan of personalized feeds or you’re staunchly anti-algorithm, you likely interact with curated content on a daily basis. And if you’re a marketer, you’ll rely on it.

What does this mean for marketing?

First and foremost, the abundance of content curation means that people have come to expect it, at least to a certain extent. Good marketing content can be curated (targeted keywords in ads and SEO), but to really have an impact it should also be genuine.  

As marketers, it’s our responsibility to add to the content experience and not detract from it. There’s no reason to offer marketing content that disrupts or upsets people. On the contrary, I would argue that content creators need to market with compassion. Too much curated content lacks any original voice.  

Focusing on keywords and target audiences is great, but ignoring the quality of the content itself can create a disconnect between you and your audience. It’s your responsibility to share content that’s accurate, real, well-crafted, and of true relevance to your audience.

Curating well is a boon to both you and your audience; you benefit from having their attention and the opportunity to share your message, and they benefit from having information that’s important to them relayed in a clear and easy way.  

Summary

Whether content curation is used for good or evil is up to you.

When marketing relies too much on curated content, there are consequences for both the brand and their audience. But despite the negative possible effects of content curation, we can’t discount its benefits. With so many screens and content channels available at any given time on any given subject, we need search engines to filter through the noise. But we also need to take care.  

As consumers of content, it’s our responsibility to be aware of curation and seek out different information to get different perspectives. After all, do we really want Facebook to define our world for us? I think most of us would agree that we don’t. Discovery keeps life interesting so let’s keep exploring past curation whenever we can.  

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