Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: Digital Dust Bunnies

Written By

Anne Derryberry

December 28, 2010

For many of us, the end of the year is a time to take stock of one’s life. It’s also, for me, the time when I weed my drawers and files of unneeded contents. That job has gotten more complicated over the years, since so much of what I hold on to is in digital form.

How is it that digital files have become like so many digital dust bunnies, multiplying and gathering lint? All those documents and emails that might be useful one day, cluttering my digital environment and taking up space on a hard drive – how do I decide what to eliminate? And if I keep a file, where do I put it so that I’ll remember about it and can find it when that eventual, possible use arises?

As I’ve been grappling with these weighty questions, I’ve wondered what the extent of my digital consumption and production is. How much data does one life generate? Terabytes? Petabytes?? (Do I even have vocabulary to describe the volume of bytes that encapsulate my life?) How much data are generated by seven billion people and their commercial, educational, medical and entertainment activities?

IDC (in partnership with EMC Corporation) has been gathering data about data since 2007, which is summarized in a report called, “A Digital Universe Decade – Are You Ready?” (http://bit.ly/LDY9H). Turns out, the universe is expanding. Last year alone, reports IDC, digital content weighed in at nearly 800,000 petabytes (for the record, a petabyte equals a million gigabytes). This year, we’re expected to hit 1.2 zettabytes (new vocabulary word for me!), or 1.2 million petabytes. And if that didn’t knock your socks off, get a load of this: by 2020, the volume will increase to 35 zettabytes. In other words, approximately 29 times the amount of data that exists today will be generated over the next ten years.

Where is this data tsunami coming from? Social networking will account for much of the new content. Right now, according to Time.com, 135,849 photos are added to Facebook every 60 seconds, about 100 million each day. Zynga, a social game developer, currently has over 360 million active users generating new virtual farms and restaurants and mafia wars. Each minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. While Twitter statistics are hard to nail down, it seems that the approximately 200 million users are generating about 100 million tweets each day. In 2009, Radicati Group (www.radicati.com) estimated that, globally, 247 billion corporate and personal email messages were generated daily - 2.8 million emails every second, with 80% of those being spam and viruses. And we haven’t even considered the data generated by corporations, universities, governments and research institutions.

How will we know what’s useful and relevant? How will we find it and access it? With so many content sources, some known but most unknown, how will we understand what content is reliable, what content sources are trustworthy, what interpretation is accurate?

Enter content curation, a practice of aggregation, synthesis, analysis, interpretation and reporting. Content curation comes in many forms, from “Top 100” or “Best of…” lists to news aggregation and analysis services like Newsy.com. A soon-to-be-released (it’s in public alpha now) search engine called Qwiki seeks to provide a new “information experience” by aggregating images and adding brief commentary in response to search queries.

None of these examples provides new information (original reporting, as it’s called in journalism), but rely instead on the first-line investigation of others. The value the curator provides is conducting the legwork of gathering the original work of others, and then compiling that work into a single content package with analysis or recommendations.

Curation is a long-standing practice. Museums are the obvious example, where those knowledgeable about a particular topic pull collections of artifacts together into a single display and offer commentary and critique of the collection. Through this collecting, analysis and interpretation, new meanings can be derived for each individual artifact and for the collection as a whole.

As educators, we, too, are increasingly in the business of curation, but with a unique twist. In developing elearning content, we compile data and resources, sift out the information that is most relevant to our learners and their learning and performance needs, and re-package it all in the right digital format. But our learners don’t just love us for our curation services. They also love us for our curation services about curation. In other words, when we’re doing our job really well, we’re teaching our learners how to be their own curators. We’re teaching our learners how to learn.

With the stunning volume of information that everyone will be sorting through on our way to that 35 zettabyte milestone, the role of educator cum curator will be ever more important. We may have to re-think how we position ourselves in the coming era, but the job of learning content curator will be vital to our collective future.

Now, has anyone seen the vacuum? Those digital dust bunnies just multiplied again…

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