Why people hate the Curator’s Code

Maria Popova was taken aback by the “venom and mean-spirited derision” with which some people greeted the Curator’s Code, her and Kelli Anderson’s system for attributing content on the internet. Andrew Beaujon says she is a bit naïve for not realising that the internet is simply a mean place:

The source of Popova’s chagrin is an immutable Newtonian law: For every action that makes news in The New York Times, there is a swift and merciless opposite reaction. Her good-natured proposal that the Internet should agree on a sort of Esperanto of links, one that will definitively reward the first person to share a piece of content, triggered two sorts of negative reactions: Derision from people who worry about the meaning of curation, and derision from people who need to squeeze out a blog post. Popova says the tenor of the reaction surprises her, which makes me wonder if she’s hooked up to the same Internet I am.

I’m not surprised either, but the reasons are a little more involved than this. We’ve spent years arguing and fighting over how people should get to use stuff that other people made. From early software piracy, to later music and video piracy, and the attempts to stop them using technology (DRM) and law (DMCA, SOPA/PIPA, Hadopi, et al); to the journalist/blogger divide; to the feud over whether news aggregators are parasites or symbionts for the places that actually report the news; to the paywall debate. This has become not only a resource war, over who gets to profit from what, but, like the most intractable conflicts, also a culture war, between the culture of scarcity and the culture of ubiquity. The Curator’s Code is firmly in the camp of the culture of ubiquity. It stirs up echoes of all the debates that have gone before and touches a still-fresh wound.

However, there is a second reason for the kerfuffle, which is that, as tends to happen in culture wars, people talk past each other. Take Popova’s assertion that curation (though she dislikes the word itself, finding it “vacant and inadequate”) is “a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency”. Marco Arment retorts:

…regardless of how much time it takes to find interesting links every day, I don’t think most intermediaries deserve credit for simply sharing a link to someone else’s work… Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation.

I’ve aggregated some links in the course of writing this blog post: do I deserve a hat tip for bringing them to your attention if you now go and write another? Arment says no, and I think he’s right. That aggregation was just a by-product of what I was doing (and I doubt I could reconstruct how I found each of those links myself). Popova spends all day long finding material for her site, Brain Pickings: does her aggregation deserve to be recognised as work? She says yes, and I think she’s right too. In her case it’s a not a by-product of what she does; it is what she does.

So if the Curator’s Code has a flaw (other than more practical questions about its usability), I think it’s that it attempts to extend its scope beyond the problem it is really trying to solve. The problem it is really trying to solve is how to give due recognition to those, like Popova, whose work substantially consists of aggregation. But it attempts to systematise attribution for everyone who aggregates, so a lot of people see it as meddling in the untraceable tangle of sharing that is simply everyday life. And the reason they reacted so harshly is that this is just another salvo in the resource and culture war that we’ve been having since before the internet was invented.

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