Aggregation and curation: two concepts that explain a lot about digital change
Every time I read a story about why newspapers are failing that doesn’t mention the role of aggregation and curation in their troubles, it reminds me that something very fundamental is being missed, even by very sophisticated observers.
Aggregation is one of the core concepts of content presentation and commercialization. Any analysis of what happened to the record business, what is happening to newspapers, or the future of books and bookstores and magazines and TV that does not feature this concept prominently is almost certainly flawed.
Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.
Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helpful. Curation creates the brand.
No content makes its way from its creator to the public without aggregation. Agents are aggregators, pulling together the work of many writers to present an (agent-) branded offering to publishers. The business would be considerably more inefficient and expensive if agents didn’t aggregate the work of writers to present to publishers.
Publishers are aggregators, pulling together lists of books to present a (publisher-) branded offering to bookstores, libraries, and various review media. Bookstore buyers would find it much more difficult to purchase tens of thousands of new books each year without this branding.
Bookstores are aggregators, and their curation is reflected in front tables and shop windows and store sections that create a (retailer-) branded offering that consumers can navigate.
In the music world, record companies aggregated 10 or 12 or 15 songs by a single artist into a single offering (called an “album”, nomenclature that goes back to when it took a collection of 78 rpm records to deliver a concerto or a symphony, and those were delivered inside the sleeves of a bound volume.) When long-playing technology (33 rpm records) was perfected, the longer form became more cost-efficient than the single, on a pennies-per-minute-of-sound calculation, so the longer form took over.
Or it took over until it wasn’t more cost-efficient anymore, which it wasn’t when the Internet happened. Aggregation and curation into 40- and 50-minute offerings no longer served the purpose that it used to. And since the unit of appreciation always had been the individual song, the aggregated album lost its sales appeal. It wasn’t just piracy that downloading enabled; it was the ability of the listener to curate for herself!
Newspapers are obviously aggregators and curators. The differences in their curation create their brand. The New York Times leaves out the comics. The New York Post leaves out the multi-syllable words. The Daily News beefs up its sports section and, for years, was known for having the best pictures. But one thing has been common to all of them and to all other newspapers: they cover the waterfront. (I have called that being “horizontal.”) They aggregate news of the world, the nation, and the city with sports, weather, stock quotes, advice to the lovelorn, and many other things. They sell almost all their advertising against the aggregate and against the brand, not against any specific item or interest being aggregated. And the competition for each paper is against other curated aggregates.
Newspapers can sell the curated aggregate to people who don’t want most of it because the total price is a good deal for the parts they want, just like the album was a good deal even if you only liked some of the songs. Or they could.
But now they are suffering precisely the same fate as the record album. The unit of appreciation is smaller than the whole. And for each unit of appreciation — each ball score, stock price, report from Washington, or political cartoon — there is a whole host of new competition.
So the long story short on newspapers is this: a business model of selling a horizontal (many-subject) aggregate, curated by something other than subject, was based on the economics of a physical world where aggregation produced efficiencies of production and distribution. The Internet changed that. It is no longer necessary for an aggregator to provide news to deliver me sports, or to provide a whole newspaper to deliver me the weather or a stock quote.
Horizontal aggregation was more efficient in a world of physical delivery. Vertical aggregation makes more sense in a world of digital delivery. And enabling the customer or user to have some control over the curation is possible in the digital world but hardly is in the physical.
What are the takeaways from this?
1. Don’t blame newspapers for not being ready for the new world. Their strategy of aggregation and curation was created for a physical world and it does not port to a digital one. This is not about whether the content is free or behind a pay wall. It is about the Internet rewriting the rules for what constitutes sensible aggregation and curation.
2. Booksellers must also take the new realities on board. Until the Internet, aggregating the largest possible selection under one roof had enormous customer value because the difficulty of obtaining what was not under that roof was high. It isn’t anymore. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and any retailer served by Ingram has a nearly-universal selection available for delivery within days, if not hours. So the gap between what’s in the store and what’s not has narrowed dramatically. The relative power of the large aggregate has been diminished.
3. The importance of curation becomes more prominent. If having lots and lots of books in a store doesn’t have the power it used to, having the right books becomes more important.
4. Publishers’ aggregation and curation created their brand, and their brand (in most cases) was intended to communicate meaning to retailers, librarians, and reviewers, not to the public! In a world where the powerful intermediaries are becoming more responsive to subject than to format, publishers need to rethink what they publish and how they present the collection that they choose.
5. Recommendation engines aside (“based on what you bought before, have we got a book for you!”), online book retailers have a long way to go to enable the customized curation that seems both possible and desireable in the digital age. Even as sophisticated a retailer at Barnes & Noble will present multiple duplicate entries of a public domain scan from Google to an ebook search for a Shakespeare play. And even as sophisticated a retailer as Amazon will sell you a Kindle ebook that is a self-published tome in a way that is indistinguishable from a book from a legitimate publisher. These are failures of curation.
Except for the writers, all of us in the book value chain are part of the effort to aggregate and curate the offerings of writers to others. Every editor and publisher, every bookstore and agent, got to where they are by aggregating and curating writers’ work in ways that made commercial sense in a physical world. Some of those assemblies are challenged; I’ve been saying that the more horizontal is the collection, the less likely it is to work in the digital world.
But, remember this: when you are looking for reasons to explain why a winner in print media is losing on the web, it almost certainly starts with aggregation and curation and how it needs to change to be optimal in the new digital environment.