The proliferation of information in the last Century and this one is beyond belief. In 2008 alone, 487 million gigabytes were added to the collection of digital information world-wide according to an IDC study: As the Economy Contracts, the Digital Universe Expands, May 2009.
As part of our on-going study into business models, we are always trying to distill the essence of any business: the ‘pixie dust’ that makes it all work. It occurred to me that what has created some extraordinarily profitable and valuable corporations in the last 18 years is a surprising resurgence of an old profession—the curator.
What do Google, IBM Tech Services, Hotel Concierge, Bloomberg Financial, Digg, Twitter and Hudson Bay Company have in common? They all curate information, products and services for their audience—this is, at the nano scale of things, what they actually do.
A curator is a steward, factor, majordomo, butler, MC (Master of Ceremonies), proctor, guardian, librarian, cleric and custodian of things (taken from The Original Roget’s International Thesaurus, 5th Edition). But he or she is more than that—an intelligent agent who curates these things on behalf of their stakeholders.
• Google curates information.
• IBM Tech Services helps clients negotiate through the thicket of info tech infrastructure alternatives and then help them put it all in place plus run it too. They will spec non-IBM equipment if it better suits the job.
• The Concierge curates myriad tourist attractions in a city and much more besides.
• Bloomberg LP provides industrial scale data organized into coherent patterns for traders around the globe.
• Digg curates tech, science, gaming and some political news for a mostly male demographic.
• Twitter allows you to follow people who are working for you for free to provide you with a window into a world of their creation that interests you.
• Hudson Bay Company is staking its future on curating interesting merchandise in patterns that it would take an individual much too long to do on their own. They may bring in co-branders as well as bundle in extra services interesting to their client base.
I think they are onto something. Why wait until the receiver is at the door like Nortel did or Blockbuster did? HBC has wonderfully located central real estate—they just have to figure out what goes into that space that people actually want.
I think it will help entrepreneurs create more powerful and more sustainable business models if they look at their enterprises with a new thought—that they are adopting the attributes of an art curator—creative presentation of alternatives and intelligent advice to help them choose.
Amazon’s amazing use of their relational data base (remember: ‘Would you like to see what other people who bought this book also purchased?’) is a form of curating their incredible number of titles. It tells people like me what else I should be reading on any particular subject.
Or how about content curation service Paper.li based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Innovation Center in Lausanne, Switzerland? Their Daily newspaper which they automatically produce for any subscriber is based on their client’s Twitter followings and interests. It gives each community that has formed around each of their clients’ Twitter accounts, a summary of tweets s/he gets every day. Clients publish fresh e-newspapers daily based on topics they like and want to share with their readers/followers/friends. Murray McGregor, Editor* at Digital Folios, uses it and he told me: “It can be a bit of a strange beast and they keep tweaking their algorithm but I like it.”
Paper.li has used a Mechanical Turk—humans are in the loop because it is people not machines tweeting/posting and they believe that people not machines are the ones who should curate content.
Here’s how they summarize their mission on their website: “We love the semantic web, we respect our content creators, we strive for simplicity, and we thrive on feedback.”
Artful, intelligent curating can lead to big businesses like Digg.com, Paper.li and many more. I suspect someone will successfully curate the more than 500,000 iPhone apps for a very receptive audience one of these days. Services that artfully and intelligently guide users have a great future and they will be hard enterprises to knock off because their sustainable competitive advantage is the ‘Mechanical Turk’ inside the black box.
Intelligence, artfulness and creativity are not easily outsourced to low wage nations and once you have embedded them in your business model as Digg.com and Paper.li have done and your community has embraced them, they aren’t easy to replicate. It’s also important to recognize that these enterprises not only rely on curation and community but they develop and own the underlying platform and its the people who own the platforms at Digg.com, Paper.li, Twitter, HBC or Bloomberg (think Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook) who make the most money from them.
* Murray McGregor is currently editing Quantum Entity, Book 1 in my new sci-fi trilogy coming out in May 2012. The Foreword is here at: http://www.eqjournal.org/?p=2932.