Around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like every other person you met was a DJ. Now "curator" is the job du jour—even for DJs, like Mark Ronson, who "curated" the music show Topman CTRL MX for Britain's Channel 4 this February. The term is everywhere: Bands like the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth "curate" the annual All Tomorrow's Parties music festival. In its fall 2010 catalog, Restoration Hardware modestly announced, "No longer mere 'retailers' of home furnishings, we are now 'curators' of the best historical design the world has to offer." On Twitter, Kanye West recently declared: "If I had to be defined at this point I'll take the title of an inventor or maybe curator."
All this self-aggrandizement might seem a flagrant distortion of a profession that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like." And in fact many traditionalists are unhappy with this etymological hijack. Last spring in a post titled "You Are Not a Curator," a blogger at the British arts journal newcurator.com sniffed, "Anyone calling themselves a 'curator' when it is clear that they are dealing in merchandise should have their thumbs removed. . . . You have not reached some cultural apex through the range of shoes you have on offer."
Maybe not, but there are plenty of benefits for those who excel at this kind of curation. Dave Brown discovered the power of picking when Holiday Matinee, his "blog for creative inspiration" (music, movies, design, travel), led to consulting gigs with MTV, W Hotels, and Ford. His "personal brand" became associated with discernment, imparting him with a much-sought-after sort of expertise. "I had an open line of communication with Fortune 500 companies," he says.
"The Web democratized the ability to spot things," explains Josh Spear, who launched his influential design-and-culture blog, JoshSpear.com, after realizing "that curated consumption was a kind of a business, because of the sheer quantity of decisions people have to make around buying things." He later parlayed his curatorial acumen into the launch of Undercurrent, a New York digital-strategy firm with clients like GE and Pepsi.
You could argue that we need this emerging class of finders and choosers now more than ever, because we're living in a world where everyone has become a creator. Consider the 24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute or the endless supply of niche products available to consumers. "Nobody revels in being overwhelmed," says Steven Rosenbaum, author of the new book Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers Are Creators. "And so we start looking for people who say, 'This thing you're interested in? I will curate it for you.' We're like, 'Okay, you're my new best friend.'" Excel at selecting exactly who and what to pay attention to, and soon everyone will be paying attention to you.
And, as Brown's and Spear's trajectories make clear, there can be other rewards. "For people who get good at this early," Rosenbaum says, "I think there will be more and more economic payback."
The notoriety of these four men comes, in large part, from their ability to make discerning choices.