For this, my 75th column, I thought I’d talk about “stuff.”

Stuff is not the most technical term for all the content on the Internet, but when you get right down to it, there’s a lot of stuff out there. We’ve put lots of stuff on the web. Our businesses have put lots of stuff there too. So have government agencies, professional trade associations, and community organizations. More stuff than we know what to do with. We are drowning in stuff.

And yet, we continue to churn out more and more stuff. According to IBM, knowledge is doubling every year. And it’s only going to accelerate. Add to this the shrinking shelf life of that knowledge. The amount of time information is useful is quickly moving from years, to months, to days. Forget about learning new stuff; sometimes we’re consumed with simply refreshing ourselves with the old stuff.

What are we going to do? We can’t rely on training alone. If we did, we’d be in class 24/7/365. Not only would nothing productive get done, we’re also not likely to keep up. Of course, if we’re always in training mode, then none of us would have time to create any new knowledge at all and, theoretically, all knowledge creation would stop. That’s certainly not what we want.

What’s needed is a renewed and urgent focus on managing the knowledge we have so that the best, most accurate and reliable information rises to the top. Instead of just creating more knowledge, we also have to curate our current knowledge.

The library example

Think about public or school libraries. How do they manage not to burst at the seams each year as they add more books and other resources? You might suggest that much of the collection will be digitized, thus enabling more content to be stored in the same space. While this is true, it is overly simplistic. The key is determining what content to keep, what to update, and what to throw away. Librarians continuously cull, or weed, their collections. They toss out old books to make room for the new. They evaluate similar materials to determine what to acquire and what to defer. Their goal: to make the collection as useful and current as they can while, at the same time, preserving older materials that still have value. In other words, they are constantly making judgment calls about content.

If you are digitizing all your organizational content but not making judgments about what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to update, you are likely to be overwhelmed. Think about simple things like your personal digitized photo library. How many photos do you have? Hundreds? Thousands? How many are really still valuable? Can you even find them, and, if you did, would you have a plan for making judgments about their value and importance to you? Could you bring yourself to toss out old stuff to make way for the new?

The curation challenge

The Internet is a terrific knowledge repository. The sheer size of the content stored on the web is unimaginable. And, within organizational intranets, the amount of content that is available is similarly impressive. But is it good content? Is it the right content for the right purpose? Is it up to date? Is it understandable? The more we have to ask these questions about online content, the more inefficient our search for the right information will be, and—even more of a concern—the more likely it might be that we will find bad content, act on it (believing it is correct), and suffer the consequences.

Content curation focuses on the accuracy, relevance, usefulness, value, and other aspects of knowledge assets. Curators are less focused on finding more content than they are on making sure what they have is the right content.

Let’s not forget the issues of design, organization, navigation, and usability. Clearly, web resources that are poorly designed will be harder to use and would likely lead to user abandonment. A big deal, for sure, but even if we have the best-designed web interface, it could still be used to deliver the worst-designed content, albeit more efficiently. Not good.

A checklist to get started

So assuming people can find the content, the question is, was the search beneficial? Is the content worthwhile? Here are 10 problems you should rule out as you curate your content:

  1. The content is wrong; it never should have been posted in the first place, or it became incorrect and should have been updated or removed.
  2. The content is inauthentic; it’s correct, but not relevant to the users or the work they do.
  3. The content creator is not reputable; the credentials or expertise of the individual(s) who created the content are called into question.
  4. The content is incomplete; much is missing, and the content is fairly useless without additional information.
  5. There is too much content; information overload creates user confusion and mental exhaustion, making it difficult to find what’s really useful.
  6. The content is biased; it reflects the author or creator’s viewpoint in a way that is inappropriate for the designated use.
  7. The content is of low priority or value; the overall usefulness of the content is questionable.
  8. The content is painful to read or learn; the design, formatting, writing style, etc., of the content is not matched to the users or their needs.
  9. The content conflicts with other content; it is hard to know what is correct and what is incorrect.
  10. The content is due to expire; if the content is outdated or due to be replaced, it may not be prudent to maintain or revise the current version (we’ll discuss this more in part three of this series).

Use these problem identifiers as a beginning checklist for evaluating the content you are posting online. If it fails to meet even one of these criteria, you might consider holding back until you can get it right.

Approaches to content curation

There are a number of ways to approach content curation, including those that put the process in the hands of experts and those that give users more control. We’ll look at them next month in part two of this series.