The Curator’s Code, Reconsidered

Was building a language to properly give people credit a bad idea? If no, why did it get so much pushback? Let’s re-assess one of the most controversial ideas of the blog era.

By Ernie Smith

I once went to an event for work that literally put four of the world’s most famous bloggers on a stage where they talked for an hour.

The lineup for this panel was basically insane: Andrew Sullivan. Andrew Ross Sorkin. Tim Ferriss. And the person who inspired today’s post, Maria Popova.

The event, put on by GigaOM, named after its paidContent arm, and hosted in the Time-Life Building in New York, was interesting—and shockingly, the video is still online. (GigaOM itself was stacked with talent during this period—beyond founder Om Malik, the site was also home to the talented media reporters Mathew Ingram and Laura Hazard Owen, among many others. It’s sad that version of the site didn’t stick around.)

Giga OM Panel Discussion

The scene at GigaOM’s 2013 paidContent Live. Can you believe that they got all four of these people on a single panel?

On the blogging notoriety scale, I wasn’t new to the game—ShortFormBlog had gotten nominated for a Shorty Award and had been mentioned in Time Magazine, whose main offices were conveniently located in the same building as this conference, by this point—but I certainly wasn’t to the scale of any of these blogging legends. And so, that meant I was in the audience, next to some other media folk.

It was nonetheless a good spot to be—I met a ton of people that day, making friends with the help of my charger with multiple outlets, ensuring all the media bloggers around me could plug in their laptops. But it was a weird time in the history of blogging, something reflected by the work Sullivan was doing at the time. He had built a fledgling subscription business around his blog, years before Substack made the idea palatable for many.

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In the years since this meeting of the bloggers, most have moved from their original model to some degree. Ferriss still has his blog, but it’s mostly focused on his popular podcast these days; Sullivan, who has veered further to the right as he’s aged, decided to let Substack do the hard work; and Sorkin’s groundbreaking DealBook blog is now much more of a DealBook newsletter.

Popova is very much still a blogger, however. Her insightful passion project Brain Pickings, now known as The Marginalian, has been active for close to two decades at this point, and despite the name change, it is basically the same style and conceit as it was when she started it as a college student in Pennsylvania—a person who dives deep into literature and culture to uncover inspiring ideas. She had done something about a year prior that drew a lot of attention and, because this the blogosphere we’re talking about, cynicism.

Curators Code

The Curator’s Code website, as it appeared in 2012. (Internet Archive)

That thing was known as The Curator’s Code. Inspired by a similar event to the one that I was attending, Popova and the designer Kelli Anderson attempted to launch a standard to ensure everyone was getting due credit for their work. At the time, major news outlets like The Huffington Post and Engadget had gained a reputation for doing thin rewrites of original reporting, often in a way that hid or minimized credit. A writer for Advertising Age, Simon Dumenco, had pointed out that this practice often minimized traffic to the original source of the information.

(It’s a phenomenon that still exists, by the way: When I wrote a 4,000-word piece for Vice earlier this year, a Gizmodo piece with only a light amount of additional reporting quickly followed. I worked on that story for three months, so you might expect me to be miffed, but to me, it’s a sign that the reporting made a dent.)

Meanwhile, there was the related issue of bloggers uncovering interesting things and then those things appearing everywhere, with no due credit shared. Popova assuredly ran into this problem.

The Curator’s Code was an attempt to solve this. As the initial version of the site, published in March of 2012, stated:

While we have systems in place for literary citation, image attribution, and scientific reference, we don’t yet have a system that codifies the attribution of discovery in curation as a currency of the information economy, a system that treats discovery as the creative labor that it is.

The strategy, which also found the support (and column space) of iconic New York Times columnist David Carr, was essentially an attempt to try to raise curation into something that respected the ethics of the source material, by creating a visual language around which this information would be shared. It worked by utilizing a pair of symbols:

  • The first, ↬, reflects that the discovery of the information is being credited to someone else. It is essentially a hat tip.
  • The second, ᔥ, is a direct link to the source material from with the information was pulled.

“One reason we’re using unicode characters is that we we wanted the symbols themselves to be a kind of messenger for the ethos of the code,” Popova wrote of the initiative.

Of course, this idea ran into the internet’s most opinionated contingent: bloggers.

Hamilton Nolan, the longtime Gawker scribe, captured the essence of the response perfectly: “We Don’t Need No Stinking Seal of Approval from the Blog Police.”

Meanwhile, Marco Arment, an early Tumblr employee who started Instapaper, disagreed with Popova’s thesis that curators deserved credit: “Reliably linking to great work is a good way to build an audience for your site. That’s your compensation.”

And other people, rightly or not, just thought that the symbols were stupid. (On the other hand, bloggers also invented and embraced Markdown, so …) Later versions of the site made clear the symbols were optional, that the spirit of credit was the important point. But the damage was already done. The idea was dead in the water among its intended audience.

Popova doesn’t have a perfect record as a blogger, but then, none of us do. About a year after she came up with The Curator’s Code, just a few weeks before I saw her on stage, she was called out by an anonymous Tumblr user, later outed, who took umbrage with her use of undisclosed affiliate marketing—something that was criticized because she had taken a hard-line no-advertising stance on her site. (I commented on it at the time, if I remember right, mostly making the case for transparency.)

But I think Popova handled the situation around the Curator’s Code as best she could. Getting hit with strong criticism—some of it fair, some of it just mean—she leaned into what she does best. She found some comments from Albert Einstein on kindness, and shared them.

The Curator’s Code was an idea that simply did not work—and I would argue that the fact that it did not work showed that, as a medium, the blog would fail to maintain its mainstream influence. Blogging could be toxic, and that toxicity kept it at arm’s length at times. But it was a well-intentioned idea to ensure credit goes where it’s due, and to build a kinder sharing ecosystem. At a time when the internet is often quite mean and even the best of us use profanities, maybe we need something like it, even if as a gesture to encourage more goodwill.

So in that spirit, since I’ll be starting to do some aggregation in Tedium, I’m going to use the Curator’s Code. This one’s for you, Maria Popova. The spirit of the idea was on the right track.

Links on the Chain

» The PC Engine now has a Game Boy emulator, Hu-Boy, which is kind of surprising because the PC Engine came out two years before the Game Boy did. (↬ Read Only Memo)

» A sure sign of your fame is appearing on The Simpsons, as Cypress Hill did in 1996. A sure sign of your legendary status is getting the opportunity to recreate your guest appearance in real life, as Cypress Hill did in 2023, when they performed with an orchestra. Watch it here.

» We’re nearing the two-decade mark of Elliott Smith’s passing, and, perhaps reflecting that, Pitchfork has been doing some great features on him this year. Fresh up is a re-assessment of his most ambitious record, XO. (ᔥ Pitchfork)

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Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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