Pinterest and the New Meaning of Curation – A TTW Guest Post by Rick Thomchick

I have read quite a bit lately about the concept of social curation and sites such as Pinterest, a “virtual pinboard” for organizing and sharing images. ”Curation” is very much the nom en vogue these days for a number of disparate activities, and I imagine many librarians roll their eyes when they see this term used to describe RSS news aggregators, search filters and even brand strategy. Nevertheless, the rise of Pinterest has been nothing short of meteoric, and even Syracuse University’s iSchool is getting into the act, so I decided to try out the site and see for myself just how “curative” it really is. The first thing to know about Pinterest is that it is currently by invitation only, at least for now. You can be invited by another user, or submit an invitation request (I submitted a request and was granted an invitation 3-4 days later). Once you’ve signed up and logged in, using the site is relatively straightforward. Simply find an image you like on the Web or your own computer, and “pin” it.

The site asks you to select a category and briefly describe the image you’re pinning. Once you create your pin, the site automatically adds the time, date, and source, and adds the image to your user stream. Other users can then “like”, “re-pin” (repost) or comment on your pin, or follow your posts to view new pins as you make them.

Curating Your Aesthetic Interests

After using the site for a couple of weeks, my impression is that much of the user activity on Pinterest can legitimately be described as digital curation, at least as it is defined by theDigital Curation Centre. At the very least, users are engaging in rudimentary cataloging when they categorize a previously miscellaneous image. Describing to a pin can further enhance image discovery. And comments from other users may also constitute a form of curative content—especially if they provide additional insights about the pin.

But to truly “curate” an image, you’ll want to organize your pin into thematic collections (“boards”). For my first board, I organized a set of images from stories about Pinterest that I’ve read over the last few weeks while learning to use the site. These images (and the articles they are from) wouldn’t all show up in a single search query, and together they form a narrative about Pinterest that goes beyond the content of each individual pin. What’s more, I can allow other users to add new pins to my board, which introduces the possibility of true “social” curation and group storytelling.

Sharing: Caring, or Copyright Infringement?

Pinterest has drawn a lot of criticism about the legal issues around pinning and re-pinning copyrighted images. Some of the most poignant comments have come from Pinterest users like Kirsten Kowalski, a lawyer and professional photographer, who recently deleted all the pins she felt she didn’t have permission to use. The issue for Kowalski and others is that people may be indadvertedly committing copyright infringement and exposing themselves to lawsuits because Pinterest copies full-resolution images to its servers instead of just linking to them or creating thumbnails (which is what Google Images does).

Based on my own experience with the DMCA process, I am dubious as to one’s chances of getting sued out of the blue with no prior warning. But the more larger point raised by Kowalski is still valid: It’s not okay to use someone else’s work without permission. Unauthorized use of photography cuts across the same grain as music and file sharing with Napster and BitTorrent, and I have never heard anyone refer to BitTorrent seeding as “curation.” Respect for authorship, whether it means obtaining permission or attributing sources, must play a central part in this burgeoning culture of curation, lest the term fade into a faddish euphemism for piracy and plagiarism.

I think there is a growing awareness of the responsibilities that come with curation, as evidenced by sites like Curator’s Code, a project put together by Maria Popova (contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and author of the blog, Brain Pickings) as a way to ”honor and standardize the attribution of discovery across the web.” Some librarians I’ve spoken to have expressed a healthy skepticism about whether people will actually use this system, and attribution is certainly no substitute for obtaining permission to use an image. But I hold out the hope that Popova’s ambitious experiment could someday pave the way for a future where chains of attribution are as much a part of the Internet as hyperlinks.

Teach Them How to Fish

I have a feeling that someone is going to call 2012 “The Year of Curation,” if they haven’t already. Heck, by the end of summer, I will probably be thanking the employees at Cold Stone Creamery for “curating” my ice cream cone. And perhaps I will discover upon graduation that, as John Farrier exclaims, digital content curation is a career for librarians.

Sarcasm aside, there is a unique opportunity to seize the moment and “grab the public’s interest” while the coals are still hot. In fact, one could argue that engendering a culture of curation is of critical importance if libraries are going to adapt to the age of participation. As Michael recently pointed out in his Office Hours column, “preserving a community’s digital heritage is the work of both libraries and museums, but involving the community in these efforts is imperative as we move forward.” Initiatives such as theLubuto Library Project are living proof that this approach can be wildly successful, and I hope it’s the kind of thing I get to read more about in years to come, regardless of how we label it.