The modularity of new media
In The Language of New Media (2001), Lev Manovich discusses the characteristics of new media. One of these characteristics is modularity, which he calls “the fractal structure of new media” (p. 30). He explains that media elements can be collected together into an entity that also can be an element, yet the elements in that entity keep their individuality.
For example, you have an event and many of those participating take photos and post publicly to Instagram. You then collect all these elements together into a Storify of the event, full of those Instagram photos. The photos in that Storify still maintain their individuality, even showing the original photographer’s username and the date it was taken. Yet, it is an element in a greater whole, your Storify.
Then, someone else creates a Storify of all the events that happened over the course of a year, specifically gathering all Storify stories created that year into a greater Storify. Now each Storify in that greater Storify is an element, but the elements (the photos and tweets) within still maintain their individuality as well. And now you’ve created this possibly infinite stream of content curation, in all its fractal glory.
The web itself is modular; web pages are made up of separate media elements, each able to be accessed separately. “Normally we think of elements as belonging to their corresponding Web sites,” says Manovich, “but this is just a convention, reinforced by commercial Web browsers” (p. 31). Take Pinterest, for example, which pulls only images from pages all over the Internet. Elements are extracted and displayed individually, separated from their context.
Curating a new "whole"
Curation, then, is not only a gathering of elements into a whole. Curation, especially in social media, is a separation of media elements from their contexts. Curation cuts media from its original story and places it with new associations, to tell a new story.
However, separation from context is not the only effect of social media curation. Curation can also cause anachronism. Consider a bit.ly bundle of articles on a particular subject, listed in the order they were found, not in the order they were published. Or a Pinterest board, the elements of which are also listed in the order they were found. In fact, many more social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Google+) organize elements by the chronology of the behaviors that touch the content, not the chronology of the content's creation.
Therefore, social media, as it helps us bring our masses of information into order, also is an aid in media’s disorder. Units of media content are separated from each other, to be chaotically curated into boards, feeds, walls, and communities.