Exactly what do you mean by “curating”?

by Jason Wilson on January 5, 2011

By Jason Wilson

I find people who aren’t in the business of creating original practice-oriented content have some funny prognostications about what the future of the legal publishing (read: creating, broadcasting, and syndicating) business holds. Take, for example, Kevin O’Keefe’s recent post brazenly titled “Legal content on iPad and tablets: What’s the business model for publishers and law firms?” From the piece, O’Keefe has this to say:

You’re in the media business in that you share your intellectual capital via blogs. You’ve led with content for client development for years, and that will become increasingly important with the iPad, and tablets. [¶] If you think you’ve seen wide distribution of your content via the Web and blogs, you haven’t seen anything close to what iPad, tablet, and other mobile devices are going to enable you to do as far as content delivery and distribution. [¶] Your target audience of clients and influencers will expect to see the type of content you share on blogs for free. Properly filtered and curated, your audience’s demand for free content may surprisingly put you ahead of traditional legal publishers, whether they be Thomson-West, LexisNexis, or ALM who are looking to be paid for their content. [¶] As [Fred] Wilson says, the onus is on developers and publishers like us at LexBlog to filter and curate the best in legal blog content and to build business models that support that. For you as lawyers and law firms, that’s great—you get wide spread distribution to your targeted audience.

(Emphasis mine.)

I suspect that O’Keefe, who is in the business of selling blogs and law firms as internet brands, intends “properly filtered and curated” to mean outlets such as LexMonitor or perhaps LexisWeb, which is vastly different from what I understand the idea of curation to be. Several months ago, I wrote a column for Slaw titled Curating the Legal Web? It was in the form of a question because the task of doing it (curating) properly—even with advances in text mining—seems near impossible (BUT not an unworthy goal) given the size of the database and the public’s desire for free consumption. In other words, it is difficult to make a business case for curating it. But what was most important about my post was this observation (referring to the ever growing body of law(yer)-created content):

Curating this growing body of analytical content will be difficult. It suggests a person-machine process of locating and separating good content from bad, and categorizing, verifying, authenticating, and editorializing that content.

People like O’Keefe don’t care about verification, authentication, editorializing, or rigid taxonomies. Their faith is placed in the corpus of “intellectual property” their clients create, and the tags, indexing, and search engines that help you (the “clients and influencers,” whoever you might be) access it. This is the supposed threat to Thomson Reuters, Reed Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, ALM, and the like. But in the end, system’s like O’Keefe’s leave you, dear lawyer, law professor, law student, etc., to separate the chaff from the wheat, to determine whether, for example, a search for “deadlines federal motion for summary judgment” that pulls up a seemingly relevant and intelligent piece from 2008 hasn’t been rendered obsolete by the 2009 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, assuming you knew about the amendments. This is the crux of true curation, at least if we are to pay any homage to the museum crowd.

If you subscribe to the notion that as lawyers, law professors, law students, paralegals, and on create more digestible web content, access to (and understanding of) law will flow as easily as water from a fountain, then you are a fool. It won’t happen unless there is a greater organizing and authenticating system at work, which is something that doesn’t currently exist for the vast Tubes.

One of my favorite observations of 2010 comes from Bill Pollak, CEO of ALM. In talking about ALM’s transition from a traditional print publisher to “digitally-focused” media company he made this observation:

ALM’s Transition from Technology-Constrained to Content-Constrained. For years we have viewed technology as a major constraint on our growth, and that belief has driven the investments we have made in web technology and basic digital publishing infrastructure. With those investments now on line, and further important investments scheduled for the coming year, we are rapidly approaching the point where a lack of up-to-date technology will no longer be our problem. Instead, as those who sat in budget meetings may have heard me say, the new constraint will be content. We’re going to need to create, curate, license and otherwise gain access to the content we’ll need for our rapidly growing family of websites and data products. Some of that content may be “news” in the traditional sense, but I suspect only a small part. More will be substantive, must-have information that our audience values either on its own or when integrated with other content that makes it more valuable. Content is the new constraint, since without it we cannot launch all the new products we have in our plans for the next several years. And that’s a very big transformation for this company.

I hope you heard it. “Content is the new constraint.” And as I read Pollak’s post, “content” isn’t akin to O’Keefe’s version of filtering and curating. It’s about substantive, authenticated, and valuable information that users of ALM’s Smart Litigator platform and other digital products will find relevant, important, and useful. It may come from blogs, but it may also come from other (gasp!) traditional publishers. But wherever it comes from, making lawyers and legal professionals feel smart and current after reading it will be job number one, which is something I can’t say for the Tubes (or it’s current filters) now.

[Image (CC) by Alien-TJE]

{ 5 comments }

@VBalasubramani January 5, 2011 at 9:09 am

You're on point with this. Curation has to be tough and time-consuming. The word gets thrown around a lot, and is on the verge of losing its meaning. The few (small minority of) people who do it well spend a lot of time doing it.

Julian Summerhayes January 5, 2011 at 11:10 am

Jason

I can only give you a UK perspective on curation.

We have a disconnect between the client or ultimate consumer and those seeking to curate, disseminate and produce information with value element. A lot of lawyers have no understanding of how information is or should be consumed by their clients and are still heavily reliant on email marketing campaigns and off-line material. Start talking to them about RSS, Google reader, blogs and social media and you get a sea of blank faces. Once you then move into the realm of how they can leverage the information that they purchase via Lexis Nexis or the like and most think only of a case here or a bit of news there.

The trouble with law is that no one set of facts is exactly the same and whilst there are categories of claims or the like where generic advice can be given, lawyers over here will be very cautious about providing information unless it comes with a big fat disclaimer.

As to the likelihood of free content being a driver, again I don't see this. I would love to see someone prove me wrong but again I am not all sanguine that lawyers want to give anything away.

Regards
Julian

kevinokeefe January 9, 2011 at 5:39 pm

There's value in secondary content published on legal blogs. There's no question about that. There's also little question that the legal blogosphere works incredibly well at indentifying reliable sources.

Lawyers, judges, clerks, paralegals and librarians have been able to discern the validity and reliability of law blog content for the last 6 or 7 years. And they have been able to do so with out traditional legal publishers giving them a rigid guide or taxonomy. The highlighting of blog posts via currating and filtering is only to go add to this process.

Your argument is analogous to Microsoft or other software sellers saying the idea of Open Source developed software would not be trustworthy unless vetted in some rigid way by software development companies.

Having practiced law for 17 years, I can see plenty of value to a lawyer being able to get insight and commentary on relevant law/industry info from lawyers across the country via blogs without having to wait for a legal publisher coming out with a book or or other resource. Not only would there be delay, but some niches would never be covered.

As a lawyer, if someone came along with a way that helps me follow blogged content, I'd take it.

Rather than saying without any basis that I "don’t care about verification, authentication, editorializing, or rigid taxonomies," why not be open to seeing where this headed. No one knows for sure.

jasnwilsn January 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm

After reading this comment, I think you and I are talking about two different things because I'm not exactly sure what you mean by blog content versus legal publisher content. I don't think you are intending to suggest that blog content could replace, for example, Nimmer on Copyrights or even one of my titles. Perhaps you are, but I don’t think so.

I readily concede that blog content has the ability to respond to current events in the way that legal publishing content traditionally has not (although that will be changing soon). A lawyer looking for recent analysis of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion will find it quickly on SCOTUS blog before having to look anywhere else. Same goes for recent rules amendments, or enacted legislation, and on.

I will also concede your point that lawyers should be able to get insight and commentary on information through blogs without having to wait for a legal publisher to come out with a book on it. But this last point ignores the fact that much of relevant law and industry related information is built on the taxonomy of authors and publishers who created the treatises, hornbooks, practice guides and manuals necessary to understand it (read: context). And blog writers tend not to be too concerned with going back and updating their posts once finished, so continued reliability of that information is important. Yes, I know that legal professionals are able to discern quality, etc., but there is a time factor there that you discount. I might read a post on a particular aspect of practice and find it to be quite helpful, but I need to double check first whether it is still based on good law, and making that determination can take a considerable amount of time.

For me, a legal publisher and legal writer, I find that blog content serves an important social commentary function around a given title. I am not so arrogant to believe that we or our authors have captured the universe of ideas around a subject, and blogs can fill that gap. In fact, blogs often give much more practical advice about “how things work” than you’ll ever find in a law book. I do believe, however, that we can educate a lawyer about a given topic faster and better than searching through endless stacks of blogs can.

For example, I’m working on an experiment that involves providing a lawyer with practice-oriented commentary (with forms) for federal summary judgment practice that is built using nothing but blogged content. Turns out, this isn't easy to do, or rather, it is, but just time consuming, with all the details of figuring out whether the blog posts are talking about an aspect of Rule 56 that hasn't been amended or whether it involves differences with district practices. I will finish it, but not in the time it would take for a lawyer who needs the information, that is, “now”.

I am completely open to blogs, blog-related content, white papers, firm newsletters, etc. But the curators need to know what they are doing, need to be clear what they are providing to the community (e.g., news v. practice guidance), and if they are providing access to historical information, need to give context for it. The next few years will be most interesting.

@SusanMunro January 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Fantastic discussion! Here's a link to my Slaw post from this fall on this topic: http://www.slaw.ca/2010/09/01/what’s-good-e
Although lawyers, librarians, etc. are able to discern the validity and reliability of blog content, those blogs are not consistently authoritative. There is no doubt that they can be an excellent source of information, but the lawyer looking for definitive and authoritative information will need to take the further step of checking for that.
I believe that lawyers often face situations where they need their information to be verified, authenticated, edited, and easily located. If that's what they need, they'll look to the publishers who include that service.
Curation is indeed tough and time-consuming! It can also be very rewarding; when BC lawyers say to us: I couldn't practice without your … Practice Manual!

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