In a workshop led by Ira Glass, host of public radio’s “This American Life,” I heard him admit, “We edit out people’s breaths and pauses in the interviews before they go on air.” Referring to those ums and stammers, this well-known personality admitted to a group of aspiring storytellers that his renowned radio show might not be as unvarnished as it had once seemed. Editing out pauses makes the story flow bettera measure designed to improve his audience’s experience. Even the non-frilly is edited.
As the Information Age barrels forward, a new role has emerged. While platforms from Facebook to Twitter to Tumblr have turned consumers into creators, they’ve given way to more writers, more content, and (as we’re painfully aware) more choices. But there’s something else. Content creators are not passing content through traditional editorial channels, nor should they be. The job and the cost of filtering content has passed from the hands and pocket of the publisher way downstream to the consumer. As a result, consumers are left in the position of having to decide for themselves who and what is worth their time. Which content is exceptional and what to tune out? Whom to pay attention to? Whom to ignore?
Whether we accept it or not, we have a new responsibility. This promotion came about without warning, without training, without org charts or manuals. As both creators and consumers, now we’re all “editors.”
We often hear the term “information overload” tossed aboutmost likely as we skim Google Reader, or perhaps while we discuss multitasking as we delete our way toward Inbox Zero. Yet, more so than information overload, we may be facing a “filter failure.” Clay Shirky, author and New York University instructor, pointed out in a 2008 talk at O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo that information overload is not a new problem and therefore does not accurately describe what’s at issue today. The critical issue is simply a failure of filters.
Enter the editor. There has long been an invisible tribe, a mysterious group, who transform scattered thoughts into compelling stories, who splice hundreds of hours of video into feature-length films, who segregate the semicolons from the em dashes. These are editors working across media sectorspublishing, film, music, moreto deliver transformative stories with clarity and grace.
The editorial role has evolved into one that involves shaping conversations with audiences. “Curate,” a term once reserved for an elite group, is being adopted by people as far-flung as musicians and chefs to fashion designers and, indeed, interaction designers. Rather than strict altering and selecting as editors do, curators are culling and selecting collections. However the editor’s legacy, and venerable history of the editorial process, give today’s curators visible models to build upon.
In the Gutenberg era, the one-to-many relationship, in which an editor dictated the content for the masses, was common. In the post-Gutenberg era, our reliance became more democratic: We sought out editors who could sift through the staggering amount of information for us, signal where to look, what to read, and what to pay attention to. Now there’s another shift at play; in fact, you may have seen it reblogged or retweeted recently. With new tools allowing an unlimited degree of flexibility and freedom, we’ve gained comfort in controlling our own media. We are, for the first time, accepting the role, and by exhibiting these qualities outward are becoming curators in our own right. We’re gaining followers and pointing the way forward for others. But without any training, how are we doing it?
Like many products and services, the modern construct of editing has had predecessors of sorts. Scene changes were already taking place in live theater, flashbacks had already existed in the novel, and narrated sequences had been part of visual culture as far back as medieval altar triptychs. Yet in the nascent era of film, filmmakers were hesitant to edit. They were afraid audiences would become confused by the splicing together of different shots. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, with films such as “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), that filmmakers discovered that editing could contribute added depth to storytelling.
Likewise, by the 1850s book publishing had taken root, with texts being published in many formatsfrom love stories to textbooks to fiction, from Hawthorne to Thoreau to Melville. But editors were nowhere to be found; publishers and authors communicated without an intermediary. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when author reputation became important to publishers and the rules of grammar and language garnered increasing attention that the demand for editors arose. In other words, when the service experience mattered, editors were introduced.
Even though an editor’s responsibility is widespread, shaping stories for audiences (whether small or large), this filtering crisis we’re in may be easier to manage than we think. You see, the skills of an editor are at once novel and familiar. So our new role is new, yes, but not entirely without precedent. Early curatorial editors like Arianna Huffington, Matt Drudge, Jason Kottke, and commerce sites like Etsy.com and later 20x200.com led the vision, shaping a pace, tempo, and dare I say, patterns. These early forerunners had a point of view, meaning consumers didn’t have to sort information themselves. Such strong editors teach consumers, by example, how to curate experiences to make meaning. Consumers need only show up or subscribe.
Editing is to media as a performance is to a composition: It is an act of interpretation, rich with opportunities for personal insight, misguided judgments, or brilliance. Each individual is different, and each individual will construct experiences differently. In our new editorial roles, we’re tasked with acting as equal parts consumer and editor. What we’re doing is, in fact, parallel to decades of editorial traditions:
- Saying no. While “stubborn” and “opinionated” might be too strong, it is a truism that an editor’s chief responsibility is to say no. Like all truisms, it is probably false some of the time, but having a recognizable voice is essential. In the recent documentary, “The September Issue,” Anna Wintour exposed hard-handed opinions necessary to differentiate Vogue in the $300 billion fashion industry. Call it decisiveness. Call it intuition. Whatever you call it; editors have the responsibility to quickly sift through abundance to decide what’s important. Just as our Twitter reputation may rest on our ability to make quick judgments about the quality of a tweet before reposting them, so are we all editors in media.
- Determining the tempo. The editor determines the tempo, and therefore, the amount of information a consumer receives. Website editors decide when and how often to deliver information to consumers. Film editors decide the duration of a shot, or what kind of edit happens between shots. Both set the pace for a particular experience. The slow dissolve at the end of “Psycho” (1960), for example, can leave an audience lingering, while the timing of a video release on TED.com contributes to our impression of the brand’s value. This is all within an editor’s control. Likewise, the editor’s own tempo must be high. He or she must plow through manuscripts on subject matter that may be of no interest with passionate disinterest.
- Giving out (or withholding) information. Editors determine how much information audiences need access to, and how much to hold back. Well-known curated sites such as Core77.com are celebrated for the considered content, not overloaded links. Editors know when and how to scan sources to determine which parts can be skimmed and when it’s key to read it all the way throughevery line, word, and scene.
- Creating coherence. Editors create relevance and experience where there was none before. Whether it’s constructing a theme or splicing together a flashback sequence for a film, editors are creating connections for their audience with, sometimes, mismatched shapes and concepts. Access does not mean a free-for-all curation party.
- Lacking a personal agenda. An editor is creating a narrative from other people’s stories, and must be comfortable doing so. In this sense, the editor is largely invisible, yet knows the value of citing. Sourcing references carefully using “via” or another format demonstrates humility and respect for your sources.
Editors are valuable and needed, but there is the added challenge: the issue of choosing sources in the first place. When we’re all editors, how do we choose content? In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about Dunbar’s number, the cognitive limit to the number of people one can have social relationships with. As we try out our new editorial roles, and choose just a small number of sources who are pointing to a larger number of sources, what sort of sources will we be bumping up against? Won’t we be in danger of filter failure all over again? It might look potentially like what Nicholas Negroponte calls “The Daily Me”the idea that a newspaper, for example, can be customized so specifically to your wants that it’s simply an echo chamber.
Finding sources is one of the key challenges in the struggle through filter failure, and recently Ethan Zuckerman, researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Clive Thompson from the New York Times Magazine and Wired spoke on “homophily,” the natural tendency for individuals to seek out others who share their preferences. In other words, birds of a feather flock together. Thompson observes that people online are flocking to like-minded peoplepaying allegiance to “editors” in Twitter and Facebook who are similar to them. But how diverse can the content be? Are we missing out on serendipity? How can we design an experience so that we can accidentally happen upon information we might not otherwise encounter?
Of course, we’re already getting practice as editors: using RSS readers to deliver content from trusted sources; unsubscribing; creating coherence with groups; and perhaps a most interesting recent development, crafting language patterns to communicate. We’re using links via people or groups we follow on Twitter to filter content that matters to us.
For seven centuries, editors have used symbols to communicate with one another: proofreaders’ marks. Proofreaders’ language comprises 42 symbols that take the place of common instructions such as “delete,” “insert comma,” or “begin new paragraph.” Editorial teams have traditionally worked in print manuscripts, passing layers of proofreaders’ marks back and forth. The patterns of this language have not changed since it was introduced in the early days of printing. Its efficiency is unarguablein a 600-page manuscript, for example, it allows a single symbol to represent “insert period” instead of the inefficiency of writing that out every time. But these marks don’t translate well to editing in digital formats; in large publishing houses, editing still takes place in analog format. Traditional editors are running up against challenges as they question how to translate proofreaders’ marks into digital manuscripts for formats like the Kindle. While digital editing tools such as Microsoft Word and Revizr help mitigate some of the digital issues, they’re far from perfect, and many houses still rely on the fusty print manuscript.
In the meantime, while we edit our own experiences, new patterns are rising: a language for contextualizing content. On Twitter an emergent practice has become prevalent, albeit not standard. Users have begun to develop language for editing content for others through “retweeting,” reposting content that another individual posted.
Twittergirl: This is a tweet! Twitterguy: RT This is a tweet! (via @Twittergirl)
In a recent draft of a paper by danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan from Microsoft Research, they explore the syntax of retweeting and the diverse conventions by which it’s communicated within Twitter. Another practice, the #hashtagsthe curious mashups of words and phrases preceded by the hash signis also widely used. When it’s included in a Twitter post, it indicates a topic, location, or emotion the user is believed to be addressing.
So from here, where? We’re now simply making footprints and leaving signs. While this is a small step for us as burgeoning editors, it’s a fascinating departure as, traditionally, an editor’s role has been an invisible oneone to provide a sort of statuesque transparencyto give it form without knowing he or she is there. The character of the medium remained unchanged, but the transformation was essential so that consumers reveled in the media rather than deliberated over it. With this change, everything has shifted downstream. The footprints and signs of the editor’s role have moved from pre-publishing to post-publishing.
Where once editors and curators provided meaning, now we’re providing it. It remains to be seen how filter failure will be solved, and whether our editorial practices are going to be enough to stamp it out. But meanwhile, though red pens and proofreaders’ marks are not in our future, better ways of collecting and distributing stories are. This age is not about writers learning new tools, nor is it about readers sift through content; it’s about editors experimenting and making meaning of stories for themselves and for their new audienceswhether those are small or large.
“Brooke, Clive and Ethan at Aspen.” On the Media. September 4, 2009; http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2009/09/04/06/
Gross, G. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
Shirky, C. “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.” Web 2.0 Expo, New York, 2008; http://web2expo.blip.tv/file/1277460/
boyd, d., Golder, S., and Lotan, G. “Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter.” Microsoft Research, January 2010.
Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts. She is an independent consultant in New York, on the editorial board for Rosenfeld Media, and on the board of Design Ignites Change. In the past, Danzico directed experience strategy for AIGA, and the information architecture teams at Barnes & Noble.com and Razorfish New York, and lectures widely. She writes ongoing at Bobulate.com.
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