Roadmap: Curating the internet

Content is the backbone of culture, and with the rise of emerging trends, technologies, and business models, curation will be the source of new identities, communities, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Choice overload plagues most internet users. In August of 2021, Statista reported that in an “internet minute,” Facebook users shared over 240,000 photos, Twitter users posted 575,000 tweets, and Discord users sent 668,000 messages. In the same internet minute, TikTok users watched 167M videos, Facebook Live videos received 44M views, and users conducted 5.7M Google searches. The rise of new forms of content online only serves to increase this overload; as the co-founder of NFT marketplace OpenSea recently noted, the number of NFTs on the platform has already surpassed the number of websites on the internet in 2010. 

Not only do many consumers find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content, but also in this age of misinformation, they may struggle to make decisions about which content is factual, helpful, or relevant to them. 

Over the past few years at Bessemer, we’ve witnessed an emergence of tools and marketplaces that curate the information we consume and also the media we see online—including who we follow, our interests, and our preferences.

That’s why we believe the future of content curation will reduce the friction of search and reduce the self-education required to navigate the internet. In this article, we’ll break down the trends pushing us towards a more curated internet, examine how platforms are curating today, and explore the exciting new business models leveraging the opportunities that curation provides.

Why is curation having a moment right now? 

Beyond the sheer amount of content online, there are four trends accelerating the demand for curation.

1. The emergence of creators as vertical-specific search engines. Creators are often the entry point of choice for people on the internet. Rather than attempt to find the products and services that they want through Google search, consumers are increasingly turning to trusted advisors in the form of creators. These creators present content and products consumers know they will like, because they like and trust the content and tastes of the creator. As a result, creators are increasingly adopting curation tools to better serve their followers. Examples include content tools like Fanhouse, writing tools like Substack and Mirror, and eCommerce product aggregators like LTK (formerly LiketoKnowIt) and Voila.

2. Decreasing trust in large social and search companies. Concurrent with the rise of creator-driven discovery is a general sense of dwindling trust in the companies consumers have historically relied on to find online content and products. As Sari Zout, founder of Startupy, explains, the historical monetization of content via the ads model has meant that “curation takes a backseat to featuring advertisers.” This means that “there is just less digital real estate available to curate your own recommendations,” and the content that is shown is designed to maximize monetization potential for the platform.In part due to this misalignment of incentives, content and product discovery platforms that monetize through ads have lost the trust of some consumers. In addition, the ads model has contributed to low consumer trust in social media. According to a recent Pew survey conducted in 2021, just 27% of surveyed Americans reported that they trust social media.

3. The increasing importance of online identity, and the rise of “nicheworks.'' As online identity becomes increasingly important and consumers are more bought in than ever to their online identities and communities, curation has emerged as a form of self-expression that sits in between consumption and creation, reports Brian Solis for Fast Company. Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, posits that the behavior of sharing on social media is fundamentally changing the structure of our online relationships, which can be visually represented by a “social graph” or map of relationships between social media usersInstead of our social networks reflecting just the people we know in real life, as we share, we form new connections based on our personal interests. These resulting social graphs are known as “nicheworks,” a term coined by Brian Solis in his Fast Company article.The rise of these interest-based social graphs is re-forming behavior on social platforms. As new platforms allowing for easier and richer “micro” content creation and sharing emerge, social network users are increasingly incentivized to share content to their nicheworks. Curators of content are incentivized both by the value they place in their nicheworks, as well as the ability to leverage curation to express their identity within those nicheworks. For example, gallery platforms like OnCyber and Hyaliko enable NFT enthusiasts to share their collections within their NFT communities by showcasing their favorite pieces in 3D galleries.

4. The increasing power of algorithm-driven curation. Today, curation is also being enabled and accelerated by the use of increasingly powerful personalization algorithms. One of the best current examples is TikTok’s “For You” page which uses a powerful algorithm to show users the content they want to see. Rather than showing content from followers through an algorithm-driven model (Instagram), TikTok curates every viral video created on the platform to provide a true algorithm-driven experience so that users are shown the videos across the internet that are most likely to align with their personal tastes and interests. AI models are becoming increasingly accessible to startups through projects like OpenAI and companies like HuggingFace that release publicly accessible AI models.

How is the internet being curated today?

Currently we are observing three main types of curation emerging on the consumer internet:

1. Individual & creator-led curation. In this category, individuals are curating through online tools and social platforms. One example is homeware influencer Laura Jackson. Jackson, along with her brother in law Daniel Crow, has garnered over 150,000 Instagram followers by curating her favorite homeware items like mugs, prints, and rugs in aesthetically-pleasing posts. As she told the Financial Times, “In a noisy marketplace, we extract the best….We saw that there was a particular need for a trusted authority that could see everything that’s out there, and bring a really curated, tasteful edit.” Like many influencers on social media, Laura is asked where to buy her recommended items; considering this unique need, companies like LTK are emerging to help creators to earn affiliate revenue from what they post.

Individuals are increasingly turning to tools to help source, select, arrange, and feature items that demonstrate their personal interests and identity. As previously mentioned, online galleries for showing NFT art (OnCyber, Hyaliko, Monaverse, and The Gallery) are great examples of this trend. But curation tools extend beyond the NFT space, including content hubs like Mirror and even social platform widgets like Twitter Lists.

2. Company-led curation. Companies are also discovering the power of offering curated content and products to overwhelmed customers. These “opinionated” marketplaces range from NFT art (Makersplace, Foundation) to music (Catalog, Sound.xyz) to grocery (Umamicart, Foxtrot), to eCommerce (Thingtesting). Companies typically establish a vertical focus—for example, Umamicart focuses exclusively on Asian groceries—and then have a curation team implement a set of criteria to further discern which products are added to the marketplace. In the NFT space, Bessemer portfolio company Makersplace is leveraging an in-house curation team to surface new projects and NFTs by famous artists and emerging creators alike.Just as Partner Jeremy Levine spotted the rise of vertical marketplaces several years ago, we’re beginning to see the same verticalization trend apply to content curation. By focusing on one vertical and doing in-house curation, these marketplaces are able to win the trust of consumers who would prefer not to have to do the hard work of educating themselves on what to buy and then scouring the entire internet for that product.

3. Algorithm-driven curation and vertical search. As with TikTok, companies are leveraging AI algorithms to generate curated experiences. While today many of the most effective examples are within social platforms that have gathered tremendous data on consumers, such as Spotify’s music curation and suggestion algorithm or Twitter’s content algorithms, there are a few startups that are now using increasingly accessible algorithms to launch their own algorithm-curated experiences, from search engines to social platforms. One example of this is Deft’s eCommerce focused shopping search engine. Algorithm-driven curation is spreading beyond the "For You" page—becoming a popular way for companies to personalize experiences for their users at scale.

Curation as a business model

There are elements of the curation experience that lend well to interesting business models and distribution mechanisms. Here are some growth strategies that have us excited about investing in tools and companies that leverage curation to provide unique consumer experiences.

1. Creating scarcity. Curation allows for creators and companies to create scarcity around discrete products. Oftentimes, creators and marketplaces will share items that are limited in quantity to a high-intent audience. This creates excess demand, generating scarcity for the products. When executed as a “drop” or “auction” model, this further increases scarcity and adds gamification to the consumer experience. One example is NFT music marketplace Sound.xyz’s limited music NFT drops, which often sell out in minutes.

2. Leveraging built-in sharing. Curation tools often leverage the distribution of creators who are also utilizing the tools. Curators will discover the tool, use the tool to share content or products, which then leads consumers and other curators to discover the tool themselves. Through this distribution mechanic, curation tools (like creator tools) can route around the expensive distribution channels of the platforms (Instagram/Twitter/TikTok) themselves. For example, many users are discovering the NFT gallery platform OnCyber because users are creating galleries through the platform and then sharing the galleries they have created on Twitter.

3. Capitalizing on community-led distribution. Curated marketplaces and curation tools can also leverage community-led distribution, as they are by definition catering to “nicheworks” of consumers. By focusing on vertical-specific services and interests, curation platforms can go direct to their communities with new distribution tactics like groups (for instance Facebook groups and Discord channels) or use less saturated channels where the community already exists. For example, Weee! distributed to its “nichework” via WhatsApp.

These are just a few of the interesting ways curation marketplaces and tools are finding and engaging consumers, and why we are so excited to invest in this space. Beyond these engagement and distribution tactics, curation platforms are also able to achieve unique relationships with their end consumers. They win trust by limiting supply and creating opportunities for consumers who were traditionally more passive users of the internet to participate more actively by lowering the barrier to entry for “curation as creation.” Additionally, curation platforms are creating opportunities for emerging products, creators, and artists to be discovered, opening up the universe of products and contents that are discoverable to consumers by creating new high-quality supply.

The future is curated

We believe the curation renaissance is just beginning. When we look back on our investment history at Bessemer, it's clear how Pinterest, the go-to place for inspiration and image discovery, was an early pioneer in the curation-as-expression movement. With online identities and communities becoming increasingly important, Web 2 and web3 curation tools for creators and consumers are providing creative new formats for curation on the internet. We predict there will be a continuing trend of companies that leverage curation through tools or a marketplace, to provide better consumer experiences.

If you’re building in this space, I’d love to hear more. Email me at asukin@bvp.com.