Most of you read, hear, or otherwise absorb from the Internet is original content which nobody has ever produced before quite in that manner: including conversations, message board debates, original art and music, original writing, transformative works such as fan-fiction and fan-art, scientific papers and journal articles, and evaluations such as movie and product reviews. Original content is the genuine novelty in the infosphere, and while not every single piece of original content is what every single reader wants to consume, it is still the 'value added' component of the internet.
Everything else on the Internet is, to some extent, unoriginal content, and unoriginal content can largely be divided into two broad categories: curated content and aggregated content. These categories differ in how they are produced, what they contain, what purposes they serve, and what value they add to the Internet.
Curated content is what is produced when a human being deliberately searches the infosphere for information intended to be useful or interesting to other human beings, and that content is organized and presented in a condensed, contextualized, value-added manner. A news article may contain information that somebody else obtained and reported for the first time, but the curator of this content can remove extraneous information, give meaningful context and relevance to the information, add their own professional or expert information to the sourced content, or provide an editorial opinion regarding the content. The purpose of the content may be solely to inform or entertain readers, or it may be intended to persuade the audience to take a specific action or side with the curator's political attitudes.
Curated content is more likely than aggregated content to provide resource citations and credit back to the original content's authors, since a human curator is fairly easy to target with litigation over violated copyrights or unethical use of information. Wikipedia and other crowdsourced reference sites qualify as curated content, even when they provide common knowledge more than little-known information, because they are still moderated and organized with sources cited appropriately and relevant context given for the information they provide. A blogger might post playlists or fanmixes of music which other artists created, and this listing would qualify as a human-created aggregation, but if the blogger extensively explains their thoughts and feelings about the music, or juxtaposes the music with art or writing and personal commentary, it becomes an act of curation.
Aggregated content is certainly able to be produced by humans, but it is far more frequently done through software technology like Google Reader, seeking out keywords and similarities between different pieces of original content in order to arrange them together for quick consumption. Aggregated content does not include commentary or annotation; it virtually never includes appropriate source citations and at best has a clickable link to another site where that content also exists; the linked site is often not the original source, and may be yet another aggregation which includes that particular scrap of content. Aggregations are not value-added information: they do not generally offer context for the information they give; they go out of date rapidly; they don't usually offer a way to obtain more information about any of the items of collected information. Aggregated content is less constrained by ethics and legalities than curated content, since an algorithm will not suffer personal humiliation over being called out for using an artist's content without giving credit.
Aggregated content sometimes takes a sensationalist approach with the titles of articles, with clickbait being an especially pernicious example of this. Aggregated content is usually the 'hook' which draws less loyal audiences to a news or entertainment website, in order to obtain easy advertising revenue and lure readers toward the better-quality information found in their curated articles. Since aggregated content does not intrinsically add information and value, aggregated content often accompanies curated and original content that can retain the viewers a site has attracted:Cracked.com is an entertainment aggregator, featuring clickbait articles prominently alongside curated content and original comedic videos. Digg is a web-based feed reader that allows users to follow many sources of content on topics of the user's choice. Huffington Post and Newsvine are news aggregators which suggest original and curated articles to the reader based on topics or time periods which the reader has recently browsed on those sites.
Some sites couple human group actions along with sorting software in order to create a more 'organic' aggregation of content based around how interested users are in the content itself. The site reddit styles itself as "the front page of the Internet," and users themselves post their own original content and content that they curate out of their own interests. The other millions of reddit users are then able to 'upvote' and 'downvote' this content, raising or lowering its overall visibility among the countless other content posts submitted in a given day. The more people who see the content and like it (and therefore upvote it), the more likely other people on the site are to see the content as well. In this way, the consumers themselves aggregate content as a group which they curated as individuals. They can then have long discussion threads and commentaries about the content, supplementing any absent qualities which would normally come through curation: they can correct false information, provide links and credit to artists and original sources, and discuss the context, ethics, and significance of the content.
The site tumblr uses a slightly different method for simultaneously creating, curating, and aggregating content, with a similar overall outcome: the more users see the content, the more other users become able to see the content, meaning that more popular or individually meaningful content will often drown out content which users find less relevant or worth sharing. Both tumblr and reddit have ways for users to seek out only the specific content which interests them: tumblr uses a system of tags for easier content sorting and searching; reddit has 'subreddits,' niche communities on the larger site that focus exclusively on one topic or genre of content. Both of these methods can be easily misused, however, and they frequently are misused in order to silence marginalized communities and ideas or broadcast undesired content to users who are not interested in it. On tumblr, there are no rules preventing users from tagging their content inappropriately, so it is not unusual for people interested in a topic to be persistently harassed through their tags: if somebody wants to troll that topic, he might post images of graphic gore and tag it 'pro choice,' hoping to terrorize people who disagree with his views on abortion.
On reddit, each subreddit has its own moderator who can limit trolling of their subreddit's topic, but the moderators do not have oversight from the site's wider administration: it is very easy for a subreddit mod to delete content with which they personally disagree, no matter how relevant it may be to their subreddit or how much the other users may like that content. User-driven aggregation-curation hybrids like these are always vulnerable to various forms of mutual censorship and harassment by the users and moderators, in a way which machine-driven aggregation and single-author curation are not. Conversely, machine aggregators and solitary curators do not offer consumers the same level of overall participation and enfranchisement around the content as sites like tumblr and reddit.
Benefits and Downsides
As a rule, curation gives consumers more options for feedback and commentary than aggregation, as curated sites usually provide limited discussion forum options below their articles. Curation, having human authors with whom consumers can potentially interact, also inherently provides more options for recourse to consumers who feel the information was handled inappropriately: if a curator puts a deceptive spin on unbiased facts, consumers can directly confront the curator, placing onus on the curator to correct his errors or suffer damage to his reputation. Even for its lack of consumer empowerment to retaliate against erroneous content, aggregation is not always altogether inferior to curation: RSS feeds and twitter feeds can be aggregated to provide useful realtime updates to thousands of people at a time on a specific topic or event that is transpiring. Several political protests and revolutions have been organized through aggregated feed-type communications between large groups of people, enabling simultaneous mass action at multiple unconnected locations. Where cautious, ethical, well-researched journalism and curation can usually only effect slower forms of social change, the sheer speed and decentralization of aggregated information is a powerful force for marginalized groups of people to retaliate against organized authority.
Large-scale aggregations can also be useful for obtaining a broad and multifaceted but very shallow comprehension of many attitudes or ideas pertaining to a single topic, such as various nations' opinions of a single world leader. This information is still limited to people who can access the Internet, however, so it creates artificially-weighted biases not present in wider offline populations. Conservative political candidates might, for example, post a clickbait article opposing gay marriage on a religious subreddit, and the large population of that community will vote the piece up to a place of high visibility on the front page of reddit; this would artificially create the impression that the Internet in general is intolerant of gay marriage, even though the opposite is true. If a tumblr user only follows other users who all fundamentally agree on a topic, then these users between themselves may create a "wind tunnel," an artificial environment where dissenting opinions are never expressed, due to every participant's tacit assumption that everybody is in total agreement with everybody else. It would be difficult to use curated content in the same way, because readers can easily comment agreement or opposition to a cohesive article concentrating on a single central idea and written by a single person who may be held accountable for his views. An aggregation has neither a central author nor a central idea which may be readily opposed, and the sheer number of implied content sources gives a false impression that many expert opinions support the agenda of the aggregator. In this way, aggregations force their opposition to work harder in order to have equivalent weight within the same discussion space. The same power which enables effective organization against authority also allows social narratives to be disproportionately represented and consumed, even to the exclusion of other voices who might have a worthier or more immediate cause to speak.
A New Take on Old Journalism
Based mainly on their larger impact on popular opinion online, aggregated content and curated content can be considered analogous to print-based yellow journalism and ethical journalism, respectively. Curated content is able to be sensationalized and used irresponsibly, no doubt, but even in the worst abuses it carries less overall ability to induce panic or scandal quickly in large groups of people, since it generally takes longer to read and has to be actively sought out. Aggregated content is conversely made very available and easier to read quickly, with no need to seek it out: it is often placed right next to reputable content as 'suggested content,' with no cautionary labels to indicate that two articles from the same website might differ widely in accuracy and relevance. Aggregated content also share's yellow journalism's role of attracting new readers who might otherwise have no interest in a publication's longer content: whether you buy a newspaper for the front-page sensationalized headline or the well-hidden three-page article at the back, your money goes to the same place. Likewise, whether you read clickbait avidly or visit a clickbait article only as a through-link to get to weightier content on the same site, that site still receives advertising revenue from your visit.
While curated content usually requires a person to be interested and actively seek it out, aggregated content merely requires that a consumer be bored enough to idly follow a quick and visible link. This means that as the Internet is increasingly humanity's main retreat for seeking novelty and relieving boredom, aggregated content will increasingly be able to influence consumers. As long as consumers continue to be tempted by clickbait aggregations, as long as human-powered aggregation makes it easy to create deceptive wind tunnels around political platforms, and as long as content feeds and other rapid-update systems are used for organizing social movements, aggregated content will always have an active role in the flow of information through the infosphere, and curated content will have to work twice as hard to get the same visibility and social mileage. This is nothing new or surprising, but it is worth educating new consumers so that they can apply the same critical reasoning to the Internet that they would already hopefully apply to print and broadcast media.
Iron Noder Challenge 2014, 4/30