A Look Down the Rabbit Hole of Interest-Based Discovery

Bari Samad's picture

I confess I do spend a lot of time on the Internet, often tumbling around aimlessly. In my defense there are some amazing discoveries made during these online travels that make it all seem worthwhile.

One of my favorite analogies is that our meanderings on the Internet are like fascinating journeys down a rabbit hole of discovery, starting at one place — and arriving somewhere we never quite imagined we would be. Well, at least that analogy makes all the hours I spend online seem more whimsical and literary and all.

At the same time discovering something of value and interest online has become increasingly challenging. We are being bombarded with copious amounts of content. But there also are shifts happening in how we are creating, discovering, and consuming content that might indicate a light at the end of the rabbit hole. Shifts that are worthy of a closer look.

Socially Curated Content

While preparing the most recent issue of Net2’s new monthly publication,Digital Bites, I came across (discovered) a great blog post on the need for a Curators Code, to honor the process of discovery through a codified system of attribution. Really good stuff, as one would expect from the folks over at Brain Pickings.

Such a curator’s code would be timely given the rapid growth of socially curated content -- which is essentially re-sharing your own or someone else’s content in an organized way via sites like Pinterest, Storify and now Quora. In fact, socially curated content combined with compelling images, and one-click interactions (e.g., re-tweeting or re-blogging on Tumblr) have effectively taken the hard work out of coming up with something interesting enough to share with the world.

Elad Gils’ post about the evolution and bright future of social curation and its poster-child Pinterest is both informative and insightful. He gives a clear history of the social curation phenomena. It is, Gil says, “structured sets or collections of curated content” and is at the heart of social sites like Pinterest, which is modeled on sharing based on interests (boards) in a visually compelling and easy way:

“Pinterest allowed users to collect content from across the web, as well as from other users on the site.  In some sense it took what a site like Tumblr had been doing but transformed blog-like streams into structured, curated collections users could share.  Importantly, it was easy for new users to consume these sets of content visually as structured sets, and to share these sets with others.”

Given all this sharing of other people’s stuff, Pinterest’s model makes a strong case for a curator’s code, and even brings up some legal issues.

Getting Selective

Importantly, social curation via structured sets signals a shift in our online social behavior by addressing that fundamental tension: that we are simply overwhelmed with content online. The tension is driving us to be selective. And that is a good thing.

We are starting to both create and consume content that actually interests us. Go figure. We are choosing insights derived from meaningful content instead of a perpetual feed of more or less random updates (e.g. “Oh! Look at the Scrapple I had for breakfast” accompanied by a vintage Instagram image of a slice of pork scraps formed into a loaf) from the large lists of Facebook friends we have built.

This need for context and relevancy is evidenced by the rising popularity of socially curated content at sites like Pinterest and marks a notable refinement of our journeys of discovery on the Internet. It seems we may finally be ready to acknowledge that we are already too bloated to gorge on what the Internet can and will feed us non-stop if we let it.

Like my two-year old son, I am forced to accept that I will have to get some structure and discipline in my life (online). And like my son, I may at first resist that structure, in my case due to some vague but deep-seated notions of freedom, liberty, democracy and whatnot. But at the end of the day, I know it’s good for me.

The Upshot

Might I actually like the structured rabbit hole with some guiding lights on its walls? It does give me some sense of control and direction about where I am going. And with structured content curation there do still remain plenty of opportunities to be surprised, delighted, shocked and inspired, right?

Elad Gil predicts that 2012 will be the year of curated sets across the web at more sites like Pinterest. Why? Essentially because producing, consuming and sharing content is easy and requires very little effort. My own research for this post revealed so many sites with so much content (see below) based on the curated set model — that I got a little overwhelmed. In fact, I felt a little like I was tumbling aimlessly. Hold on! Wait a minute!

Interest-based discovery via structured sets of socially curated content is definitely something to keep an eye on in 2012 and beyond. As usual, I’ll just need to remind myself to be a little disciplined and selective, that’s all.

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Sites of Interest: Pinterest, Storify, Quora Boards, Gimme Bar, Snip.it, Fancy, Paper.li, Pearltrees, ColourDNA, Image Spark, Evernote, Springpad … and more.

Image attribution: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons