Most people seem to think that great online content is generated by two kinds of people: creators and curators.
Creators are the artists, entrepreneurs, humorists, essayists, musicians and podcasters who live to make new things. Curators use their time and talents to sift through all these creations to find the pieces truly worth sharing amid the Web’s mountains of mediocrity.
These two roles account for the vast majority of popular Web fodder, but there’s a third form of creativity that’s often overlooked when it comes to making great digital content: discovery.
The idea that “everything is on the Internet” is a myth, and a widespread one at that. Every day, cultural archaeologists are uncovering amazing finds from the “real” world and digitizing them for future generations. This week, I even got to enjoy the feeling of being one of those people.
In December, I ran across the photo at the top of this post when it was shared by a friend on Facebook. The photo had a strong emotional impact on me, and, surprised I had never seen it, I immediately wanted to know the details.
When I went to Google, I found something truly odd on Google: almost nothing. The photo had been shared many times, but no one seemed to know the story behind the shot, other than the name of the photographer and the newspaper where it was originally published.
When I get an itch to find something, I can’t stop until I’ve found it. I emailed the newspaper’s editors, who were very helpful but admitted they couldn’t remember when the photo was taken or where it might be found in their microfilm archives.
I kept digging in my (limited) spare time over the coming weeks and, thanks to a blessed research librarian and several other generous souls, I tracked down all the details and even the photographer himself.If you’re interested, you can read the whole story over at Poynter.org, where my writeup was posted earlier this week. The reactions have been fantastic, and I have to admit it’s been one of the more rewarding personal projects I’ve tackled in a while.
But why is it rewarding? I didn’t create the photo, and I’m not the first to share it online. However, the story behind it was something that hadn’t been told. There’s a singular joy in realizing that you’ve actually added to the digital sum of human knowledge.
The lesson I’m trying to share isn’t that you need to go take on obsessive reporting projects. It’s more important that you simply think of discovery as a key part of your approach to digital content and social media.
We can’t all create the next great or hilarious thing, and few of us have the time to be curators of the global information fire hose. But any of us can shut down the browser, get out in the world and explore. Sometimes the things most worth finding can’t be Googled. Yet.