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The new generation of online cultural curators

The current internet landscape sometimes feels like an in zone Andrei Tarkovsky‘s movie «Stalker»: directionless, inexplicable, forced to change in confusing ways. Our social media channels don’t offer much beyond speeding up algorithmic recommendations. Google and other forms of search are getting bogged down with the content it generates Artificial Intelligence. Knowing what you’re looking for doesn’t always help guide you, as niche communities can be difficult to find and keep up with. We’re in a transitional phase of digital culture, so more than ever we need friendly faces, likable human guides (not unlike ‘stalkers’ in the zone) to help us navigate this treacherous terrain. Such guides go by many names – call them influencers or content creators or simply “that one person I follow”. Guided by their own cultivated sense of taste, they bring their viewers news and insights in a specific cultural area, be it fashion, books, music, food or film.

Perhaps the best way to think of these guides is as curators; as a museum curator, they gather works for exhibition, organize the avalanche of online content into something coherent and comprehensible, restore missing context, and create stories. They highlight valuable things that us less experienced internet users are likely to miss. Andrea Hernández, Owner Snax shota newsletter and social media account dedicated to “curating the food and beverage space,” recently told me, “Cure is about being able to filter out the noise.” (I follow Hernández for her skills in discovering the wildest examples of direct-to-consumer beverage startups like Feisty , purveyor of “protein soda.”) She continued, “I go out, I search the Internet, and I come to you with my victims.” Unlike the museum curator, however, the digital personalities I began to follow also become the faces of their work, posting their recordings on TikTok and Instagram to build a trusting relationship with their followers.

He is one such curator Derrick Gee, a former online radio DJ who lives in Australia. I first encountered Gee on TikTok and was drawn to his architectural look: thin wire glasses and stylishly loose, often monochromatic clothing. He records videos in which he speaks into a microphone in a quiet, soothing voice, breaking trends in contemporary pop music and reviewing cutting-edge audio technology. Gee has become part of my feed; I am one of his more than three hundred thousand followers. He introduced me to the world of Korean alt-rap, provided me with a playlist of tickling minimalistic piano instrumentals, and explained why Mitski’s latest album feels so vintage to me (due to an effect called «slap-back echo»). I trust him to not only show me something great, but to teach me something new. “I connect the dots between cultures and sounds and eras,” he told me. When Gee was a teenager, his electric bass teacher played a similar role for him, exposing Gee to James Jamerson, the Motown bassist who infused jazz into pop songs. “That opened up the whole world to me,” Gee said.

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Gee’s practiced mic demeanor comes from his career outside of social media. He began working in graphic design and then television development, but also became interested in music with a self-recorded radio show that he began uploading to the Mixcloud website in 2012. This show evolved into jobs at music label 88rising. , SiriusXM and Mixcloud itself. Gee started posting on TikTok in early 2022 after being introduced to the platform by a successful influencer who was trying to break into music. Gee started out with videos documenting his speaker collection, but quickly transitioned to using his musical experience. He told me that he is still a DJ in a way: “What I do is radio, but with the camera on. It’s just a break between songs,” he said. By working outside the institutions of the music world, he hopes to play a small role in moving the industry forward and promoting more informed consumption. He described himself as an older brother figure to his audience: «If I can transport you, a 17-year-old Korean-American, to British garage, I’ve done my job.» (For anyone who doesn’t follow Gee, «UK garage» is not garage rock, but the influential British electronic dance music that originated in the nineties and influenced contemporary K-pop.)

Digital platforms are largely focused on getting users to consume more and faster – go figure Tick ​​TockA frenetic «For You» channel or automatic Spotify playlists. Curators slow the never-ending scroll and provide their followers with a way to savor the culture rather than just inhale it and develop a sense of appreciation. Laura Reilly, who lives in Brooklyn, runs a newsletter and Instagram account called Magazine (the French word for «store»), which it launched in 2021. Now with more than twenty-eight thousand subscribers, Magasin boasts the slogan «It’s a store. It’s a magazine. (It’s a fashion shopping newsletter.)” But it goes beyond simple endorsements to champion lesser-known brands—purveyors of earthy, high-end basics Studio Nicholson; knitwear maker Lauren Manoogian—and often interrogates the very act of shopping. «The more you learn about the brand,» Reilly told me, «the longer you’ll hang on to these pieces.» In other words, her informative posts are the antidote to fast fashion. Reilly now works as a news editor and menswear columnist, but serves as a writer, editor, photographer and model. Magasin’s Instagram account features photo spins of her outfits from the brands the newsletter covers, but they’re often selfies with a dressing room mirror rather than polished portraits. This goes beyond convenience into a deliberate business strategy: like influencing, online curation can be a parasocial act. «To be competitive, I needed to put more of myself and my image into the newsletter,» she said.

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Curating takes work and, like any other kind of work, is only sustainable if it is adequately compensated. Gee monetizes his account by creating sponsored content on TikTok, primarily for audio equipment brands. Magasin earns most of its revenue from affiliate marketing — for every reader who clicks on a link and buys a new Proenza Schouler cashmere sweater, for example, Reilly earns a commission based on a small percentage of the sale price. Prior to Magasin, Reilly worked in e-commerce fashion writing for the magazine In the style, highlighting new product releases and offers. This approach provided the inspiration for her newsletter and set her apart from other solo fashion commentators: “I didn’t want it to be something that was a diary; I wanted it to be a service,” she said.

In the previous era of the Internet, we might have thought of figures like these simply as influencers whose ability to attract large numbers of fans online gives them power that sometimes surpasses traditional publications. But the idea of ​​an influencer, Reilly said, has «flattened a bit» over time, meaning shallow, uninformed, even misleading content dictated by sponsors. «There’s a difference between influencing and what I do,» Reilly insisted. The archetypal influencer produces lifestyle porn of one form or another, highlighting the aspirational glamor of their own home, food or vacation. The new wave of curators is more outward-looking, borrowing from the influencer’s playbook and using social media’s intimate interaction with followers to reach a part of the culture beyond themselves.

Nathan Shuherk, an online curator of literature living in Indianapolis, didn’t mind the comparison between what he does and influence. Given «how much of culture is filtered through the eyes of influencers,» he told me, we should take this work seriously. On TikTok under the username @schizofrenik is readingShuherk posts videos in which he delivers enthusiastic monologues about non-fiction books that reflect his personal preference for leftist, revisionist, socially engaged historical works—»How to hide an empire,” by Daniel Immerwahr; «Midwest Futures” by Phil Christman. In 2021, he started posting on TikTok as a way to pass on article and book recommendations to his friends; he has now amassed nearly one hundred and eighty thousand followers. Before running @schizophrenicreads, Shuherk gained experience in a very different kind of public speaking. He has schizophrenia, and in 2017 he left a master’s program in library science and went on disability leave to adjust to living with the illness. He was busy lecturing on his experiences for advocacy organizations. The title of his account was partly a reference to his illness and partly a joke about his wide taste in reading. “It never occurred to me to do it for a mass audience; I tried to be an unemployed librarian to my friends,” he said. Due to limitations on receiving disability benefits, Shuherk tries to limit his income, but maintains a small Patreon account where fans can donate money and gain access to other material, including a podcast. (Full disclosure: I appeared in one episode.)

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