In traditional worlds, a museum curator’s role is to be a steward of history, weaving stories from various domains to guide culture in its becoming — to answer who we are, where we’ve been, and where we can go.
A curator doesn’t just take pieces of history and reorganize them. They assert a point of view about the works, explain why they’re important today, and show how we can use these artifacts to learn about society and ourselves.
There are so many dots they could connect to tell a story, so a curator has to be specific in their inclusions and exclusions. That’s why there are themes and exhibitions. Sometimes it’s a story about the artist and their body of work in a specific period of time, e.g., Andy Warhol or Agnes Martin or Virgil Abloh. Sometimes it’s a story about a moment in history and includes various objects that embody the culture of the times, e.g., the exhibit “Design for Modern Life” at the MoMA in 2019. A recent one I saw at The Met, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was about women’s fashion and how each piece of clothing can invoke a feeling. One of the best I’ve seen.
This practice of curation has mostly lived in museums and art galleries; vinyl record stores and libraries, but here is a growing cohort of digital curators. Knowledge curators. Ideas curators. How many newsletters do you subscribe to that simply curate links? Rather than going to 12 individual sources, you trust the person in the middle who acts as a filter for what’s worth reading. You trust their authority and taste, and believe they’re ahead of the curve. Our feeds, in their own way, are curated by algorithms based on our behaviors. But because it’s coming from the corporation, there is less trust. So we look to real people to guide us to where the good stuff is.
Curators are champions of context. Being exposed to new ideas and cultural trends is important to learning and seeing the world widely. On the flip side, it also is overwhelming. The ratio of what we consume to what we ingrain in our minds — or put into practice — gets slimmer. Many people do not have the mental capacity to sift through their feeds to pluck out an article or podcast that is enriching. Our brains are not hardwired to care about everything in the world.
When we find a person we trust — their taste, enthusiasm for what they’re sharing, a history of caring about particular ideas and why they matter, and experience in the field — we open ourselves to new influences and ideas.
My experience curating a newsletter
From 2016 to 2019, I was the Head of Content for CreativeMornings, the world’s largest face-to-face creative community.
One of my favorite parts of my work was to put together the Weekly Highlights newsletter. When I took it over in 2016, I was a bit confused as to why it existed or what it was for. After getting my feet on the ground and gaining a sense of the community’s interests, it dawned on me: People are subscribed because they love the brand of CreativeMornings. They might not have a local chapter in their city to attend events, but they still wanted to discover new talks and be part of the CreativeMornings universe.
The newsletter had 100k subscribers with a 10% open rate and 2-3% click rate.
Within two years, I grew it to 250k subscribers, a 25-30% open rate, and a 8-10% click rate. By the end of my time, I had over 11 million total reads. Why did so many people subscribe and share it?
There was a section in the newsletter called Fun Stuff to Click On. Inspired by Tina Roth Eisenberg’s (founder) blog and her Friday Link Packs, this was a section of the newsletter where I curated links from the wide expanse of the internet. There were articles/podcasts/interviews on everything from creativity to philosophy, science, psychology, design, marketing, entrepreneurship, and team management — every link, no matter how different than the one after, all connected to this notion of leading a creative life. We had a Slack group where people shared the most interesting thing they read that week or month. That was a goldmine of high-quality reads. It also helped me learn what each team member cared about.
As a voracious reader, an indispensable tool I use is an RSS reader called Feedly (RIP Google Feedburner). I’m subscribed to dozens of blogs, publications, podcasts, etc, and I manicure my subscriptions every few months to maintain quality. The health of my RSS feed is reflective of the quality of my learning, what I allow into my mind. What you give your attention to reshapes your thoughts; thoughts are building blocks to identity.
This curation, I learned later, was the core reason why people subscribed and shared the newsletter with a friend. It was shared internally at agencies or start-ups. When I looked at the data for link clicks, the opening image would get maybe ~1,500 clicks. But the entire Fun Stuff section would garner, on average, 20,000 total link clicks in a newsletter every week.
The lesson learned was this: People don’t have the time to comb through the internet to find good reads and hearty ideas. Because they loved what CreativeMornings stood for, there was a halo effect for this newsletter, a baked-in assumption that anything in it would be inspiring and a good resource for creative people. We delivered on that promise every week. It took time to earn that trust and generate momentum for creative people to share it on Twitter or screenshot and write a paragraph about it on their Instagram stories, but the growth was exponential because people would open the newsletter, click on nearly every link, and shout from the rooftops about how much they loved it. I have a folder labeled “LOVE” with screenshots I collected over the years.
I see a great need for a curator of ideas. Especially for busy executives, relying on someone who has an ear for culture and trends, a taste in high-quality writing or sharing of knowledge, can be infinitely enriching. We hire personal trainers to shape our bodies and therapists to unravel our minds. Why not have someone who serves you up fresh, relevant ideas so you can have a beat on the topics you care about?
I notice this in my own behavior: I don’t go on major news outlets anymore and instead follow the journalists who left those establishments or got canceled. This allows me to move back and forth between political parties, different newsletters, or blogs. It requires more critical thinking versus living in an echo chamber.
There are already curated newsletters for politics, book recommendations, food recipes, and crypto. I expect more topics soon.
Principles of curation
It would be criminal for me to not mention the works of Maria Popova, founder of The Marginalia (formerly BrainPickings) on the philosophy of curation. She is the master of curation in timeless knowledge.
“First things first — ‘curation’ is a terrible term. It has been used so frivolously and applied so indiscriminately that it’s become vacant of meaning. But I firmly believe that the ethos at its core — a drive to find the interesting, meaningful, and relevant amidst the vast maze of overabundant information, creating a framework for what matters in the world and why — is an increasingly valuable form of creative and intellectual labor, a form of authorship that warrants thought.” — Maria Popova, source.
Curation requires the combination of taste, filtration, understanding your audience, and being a beacon of knowledge. You are asserting that the thing you’re highlighting is worth the audience’s attention. Real talk: It helps to be extremely online. To sit in the eye of the storm, sifting through hundreds of URLs and headlines, plucking out the gems and serving them up in a timely, relevant manner.
Let’s break that down.
Understanding audience: In the context of CreativeMornings, here’s my secret: I was making that newsletter for myself. I was the audience. The best compliment I got from readers was when they said they felt like the newsletter was made just for them, as if I had wandered a garden and filled a basket of goodies just for their meal. It took six months of making the newsletter to have that ah-ha moment. Talking to attendees at events also gave me the reassurance that what I was building — and who I was building it for — was useful. Sometimes work strongly resonates with us because it is someone’s labor of love. You can feel the attention to detail, the craft, the time put into something.
Taste: Good curation introduces the audience to new thinkers, leaders, publications, universes, and resources. It surprises people, especially the ones who think they’re in the know. My taste comes from being a deep reader. I simply consume more books, articles, and podcasts than you and the person next to you combined. This isn’t to brag; it is my passion and part of my vocation. My craft deals in language and ideas, in thinking about them and putting them to use. I had a sense for what kinds of ideas would enrich my audience because they enriched me.
Filtration: Over time, as you curate ideas, you will naturally prize some thinkers and publications over others. They deliver high quality consistently, so it’s difficult not to feature something from them every time. The job of a curator, I think, is to manage the filtration so the suggestions don’t get homogenized. The curator can easily fall into an echo chamber without knowing it (until someone calls you out). I avoided this stagnation by editing my feeds every couple of months. I would zoom out and observe the resources I pulled ideas from. By doing this, it helped me see patterns. I could intentionally break them by removing a couple of publications or thinkers and replace them with vastly different ones — familiar ideas and topics, just different points of view.
A beacon of knowledge: On a good day, a curator is a hope-giving mentor who encourages readers to focus on hearty ideas and sit with them rather than gloss over them. I can imagine this being used in horrible ways, too, like a highly politicized newsletter that only curates things from one side. In recent years, I’ve followed crypto newsletters, which are more focused on what’s happening in the industry and less about essays or ideas from leaders. People don’t have the time or bandwidth to comb through Twitter feeds or Discord channels. They are willing and ready to trust someone to serve it up to them like a Thanksgiving plate.
Curation done well over time can position you as a leader. Good writing is clear thinking and people gravitate to those who articulate ideas well. If you can grow an audience, it’s easy to assume you have something others don’t. If you have an existing audience, this kind of curation will only elevate your status. If people look up to you, and you provide them something inspirational/educational/useful, it forges the bond you have with that audience. They will see you as a source of ideas that they can’t seem to get elsewhere. And there’s power in that. A lot of power.