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4 Posts You Have To Read About BuzzFeed and Social Publishing, Post 3: Distributed Curation

4 Posts You Have To Read About BuzzFeed and Social Publishing, Post 3: Distributed Curation

This is Post 3 in an ongoing series on BuzzFeed and social publishing. You can read Post 1 here and Post 2 here.


In 2014, Jonathan Glick coined the term “platisher” as an answer to this twofold question: “What should we call a publisher — like Gawker — that provides a tech platform on which anybody, not just its staff, can create content? What should we call a tech platform — like Medium — that has a team of editors and pays some contributors to create content?” Presenting a “platisher” as something between a platform and a publisher, he continued, “A new generation of media companies is experimenting with opening their content-management systems to outsiders. Tech platforms are realizing the benefits of combining algorithms with editors and experts. This is resulting in a new hybrid.”

Despite the jargon-heavy sound of “platisher,” the term does reflect a media moment in which the perceived lines between the platform and the publisher are increasingly being blurred. To take a step back for a second, let’s first look at these terms: what do they mean? In the context of the digital media dialogue, a “platform” generally refers to a model that’s not focused on particular content or content producers, but rather on facilitating production, distribution, and discovery. Think of Facebook, as originally and most simply conceptualized. Publishers, on the other hand, produce content, with access to this process limited and a degree of division between those who make the content -- writers, editors, and so on -- and those who consume it. Think of the New York Times.


Nope, not platypus, platisher.


In recent years, this division has become increasingly blurred. This is where the examples that Glick mentions in his original question -- like Medium and Gawker -- come in. BuzzFeed, which I’ve been discussing throughout this series, is in many ways a poster child of the “platisher” moment, as it has prominently expanded its journalistic operations -- consistently recruiting reporters and writers from traditional publishers in the process -- while maintaining its focus on social sharing and opening its CMS to brands and “community members.” In this post, I’m interested in exploring the words that permeate discussion of this “platisher” moment: words like curate and edit and filter.

These words are generally used to note the differences between the publisher, which -- as typically described -- curates and edits and filters and has an editorial point of view on what’s “fit to print,” and the platform, which is (supposedly) “content-agnostic” and doesn’t curate, edit, filter, or have a point of view. What’s often lost in this binary discussion is that, in reality, the difference between publishers and platforms, as typically understood, isn’t that one curates/edits/filters and one doesn’t. We just think about the ways in which they curate/edit/filter differently.

A reminder: even theoretically “open” platforms are built by people, and they always reflect a point of view, gatekeeping, filtering: all of those traits so closely associated with the concept of the “publisher.” As David Weinberger and others have written, in a networked digital context in which more information is constantly being produced, it’s impossible to access anything without some filtering going on. When seen as networks -- encompassing technologies, the people who build and use them, and the contexts and relationships around and between them -- platforms filter in all kinds of ways. Platforms filter in terms of who’s there: in one well-known example, danah boyd analyzed “white flight” from Myspace, putting self-segregation on Facebook (with its origins as a “gated community,” open only to those at elite universities) and Myspace (widely discussed as “ghetto”) into conversation with broader histories and politics of self-segregation. Platforms also reflect filtering in the content they host and the shapes this content can take, both through the affordances and constraints coded into the platforms and through the cultural filtering that permeates them. As Jill Rettberg writes in Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, “technological filters allow us to express ourselves in certain ways but not in others,” while “our cultural filters, the rules and conventions that guide us, filter out possible modes of expression so subtly that we often are not even aware of all the things we do not see.”

In the context of the social web, another form of filtering and curation plays a major role: filtering and curation in relation to how content travels and how people engage with it. Here BuzzFeed is, once again, an ideal case study. As I discussed in my previous post, BuzzFeed’s content is driven by the “distributed cognition” of human writers, producers and editors and the machine learning that comes from the company’s algorithms. Material is curated to do well on the social web, both by algorithmic insights into audience engagement and by staff’s understandings of the social and cultural factors at work. BuzzFeed’s “brand,” that closely-guarded element often associated with the traditional publisher, stems not so much from prestigious bylines or legendary editorial structures, but from its ability to create content that reaches people through sharing and from the affect embedded into BuzzFeed content.

In opening its CMS to brands and “community members,” BuzzFeed really isn’t displaying a lack of filtering or curating. The process for creating community posts, for example, highlights this. Users who want to contribute to the “community” must first successfully suggest a post that would do well on BuzzFeed; BuzzFeed supplies advice on “how to go viral,” provides four formatting options for content, and outlines its community guidelines. The community guidelines reflect the mix of shareability and friendly, identity-affirming affect that underlie the site, saying, “BuzzFeed Community is an open platform, and anyone who wants to can sign up, make an account, and post awesome things that people will want to share. If you make something really great that everyone loves, you'll be accepted into the Community (you can tell the difference, because your profile will say "Community Member" instead of "BuzzFeed User"), and your posts may be featured on the Community Page, or even the front page of the site!” Filtering and curating are still here: they’re just distributed, as users, integrated into the network that expands past the site itself and moves across the social web, self-curate. These users do this with an understanding (likely gleaned at least as much from interactions with existing BuzzFeed content as from the spelled-out guidelines) of “what makes a BuzzFeed post,” complying with the technological and cultural filters underlying this understanding. Distributed cognition, distributed curation: it’s by viewing the “platisher” as network that we can see how filtering works here and, in many ways, on the social web writ large.


A tale of two affects (via Medium and BuzzFeed).


Of course, the model of curation we associate with a publisher like the New York Times  - the centralized “stamp of quality” model - is still highly influential and plays a key role; BuzzFeed wouldn’t be recruiting Times-approved reporters and continuing to grow its reporting work if it weren’t. But as our ideas of the “platform” and the “publisher” become increasingly intertwined, representing more of a spectrum than a binary, it’s worth considering the curating and filtering that play out everywhere on the web, in ways visible and less visible, centralized and distributed. Particularly at this moment, a more holistic understanding of filtering and curating, one that takes into account the technological and cultural filters that shape our engagements with platforms, publishers, and “platishers,” shouldn’t be left out of the ongoing conversation.


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