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Curation versus filtering – the conceptual battleground

By on March 22, 2011

It has always been difficult to find good quality content. There are many more people who think they can create good stuff than who can actually create good stuff.

In the world of atoms, where shelf space was scarce and duplication expensive, whole industries emerged to solve this problem.* Agents, publishers and retailers sift through the morass, seeking out gems that are of sufficient quality and market appeal to justify the heavy investment in editing, manufacturing, marketing and retailing.

In the world of bits, this isn’t necessary. Shelf space is infinite and duplication costs trivially cheap. There is no need to sift and assess market appeal when you can just release the product into the wild and see what the market wants.

The difference is “curation” versus “filtering”.

Curation – or “big business knows best”

In the curation model, big business tells consumers that they know what will sell. Their long experience, their expensive focus groups and market research, their publishing skills tell them what will work.

Publishers who believe in the curation model believe that they are the only thing standing between consumers and a tide of content effluent. They are the arbiters of taste and value, and their judgment is paramount.

I believe that they are frequently wrong. In his seminal Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman said, of the movie business:

“Nobody knows anything”

He conclusively proves that, across the movie industry, nobody can predict what will be a success (unless it is a sequel). It’s a hit driven industry, and it is innately unpredictable.

The same is true for books and music and games and television.

There is some value in curation. It provides a minimum guarantee of technical quality, rather than creative quality. It provides an easy route for consumers who want to just pick up the “next big thing”.

But it is, in essence, an approach that says “we know best”.

Filtering, or “you know best”

The Internet has brought a new problem. In the world of abundance, there is a lot of dross out there. Filtering it out is a challenge.

We are beginning to have good tools for filtering, but we are only just at the start. Things like Apple’s top free, paid and grossing charts show what real people are playing. Facebook, Twitter, GameCenter and other social networks allow rapid sharing of games, books or movies that people enjoy.  Amazon’s recommendation engine may be the most sophisticated filtering tool on the web.

The point of filtering is to assume that there is an enormous amount of content out there. Much of it is valuable only to a small subsegment of the total audience. I, for example, loathe opera but love the blues. Filtering is all about helping me to find the content I want, while allowing others to find the content they want, in a world where the supply of content is vast.

It’s about assuming that no-one has control of the content, and embracing it.

It’s about finding business models that don’t target the lowest common denominator.

It’s about using the economics of abundance to find the few superfans who love your stuff and will pay bucketloads for it, by giving it away for free to everyone.

Who will win?

There is a place for both curation and filtering. However, the curation needs to be *much* better. Most curator businesses came into being when distribution was difficult. It is now easy. They are no longer needed to curate just because content creators can’t reach their audiences any other way. They need to add value in the process – a lot of value – and many of them will fail to realise how much their value proposition has moved away from simple content distribution.

Filtering is very far from being a solved problem. We have initial solutions (recommendation engines, the social graph, etc), but there is still much more to do.

I believe that we are moving away from “we know best” to “you know best”. This is fabulous for innovation, for creativity and for content creators.

It’s not so good for big publishers.


* Note I don’t believe that all publishers are focused on quality. Far from it. A glance at the bestsellers lists will show reams of “celebrity” autobiographies in books and swathes of me-too first-person-shooters in games. Publishers actually exist to mitigate risk; curation is only a small part of that.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: