< The Curator's Code


Friday, March 23, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What’s arguably the greatest strength of the Web? The boundless sharing and dissemination of information. What’s arguably the biggest problem? The unbridled appropriation and repackaging of information. Is it possible to codify a language of attribution across the Internet?


Maria Popova, of the website brainpickings.org, along with Tina Roth Eisenberg, aka swissmiss, have created what they call The Curator’s Code, Unicode icons that you can embed in a blog post or article that’s a shorthand for attribution. A sideways S icon is a “via,” V-I-A, which attributes and links to the original material. A looping arrow icon represents a “hat tip,” which will take the reader to where you first encountered the content that you‘re sharing. The Curator’s Code serves as a kind of breadcrumb trail that allows the reader to trace both the source and inspiration for an article. Maria, welcome to On the Media.

MARIA POPOVA:  Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Let’s use a definite example. We learned about you from a piece by David Carr of The New York Times. So the “via” would lead to your posting of The Curator’s Code, but the “hat tip” would lead to David Carr.

MARIA POPOVA:  Right, so the idea of the “hat tip” is that you found a story lead or idea elsewhere but you created your own expansion of it and building upon it in a meaningful way, so creating something different. What you’re doing is more than repeating the message that was in The Times. You’re creating your own original content, in a different medium, as well, around that story lead that you got.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The first one, the “via,” I think most people can get. You want to go to the original source.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The “hat tip” is, I think, a little more worthy of explanation. I know a lot of reporters would probably prefer not to give a “hat tip” to –


-where they got the lead that took them to the original source. But you feel that this is also very important. Explain why.

MARIA POPOVA:  A large part of it has to do with my firm belief that creativity is combinatorial. So we take these existing pieces of knowledge and insight and information and inspiration, and we recombine them into new things.


And just last week, I had the pleasure of introducing David Eagleman, the neuroscientist, at his South by Southwest keynote, and he wrote this fascinating book called Incognito about the unconscious processes of the brain. And one thing he mentions in it is that whenever we have an ah-ha moment, it’s really that the brain has been consolidating and mulling bits of information for hours or days or years, and this is just the moment in which these bits of information click into a new combination. So the whole idea of the code is that all of our ideas are indebted to other ideas, and the “hat tip” is a way of recognizing this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  When did you launch The Curator’s Code?

MARIA POPOVA:  March 10th.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And how many people so far have adopted it? Do you know?

MARIA POPOVA:  Well, we have no precise way of tracking it. There’s been a great deal of response. I’ve gotten a number of emails saying people really think there’s a need for it. We’ve gotten a lot of pushback, mostly by people who get hung up on the characters themselves and saying, well, we already have a system of attribution, why do we need the unicodes? And, again, this is not mandated in any way.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You don’t care.

MARIA POPOVA:  We don’t care, not at all.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And they’re quite elegant but you don’t have to adopt them.


MARIA POPOVA:  Well, we – no, not at all. And – but we actually thought about it quite a bit, which characters to choose. And one of the reasons we chose the sideways S-like character for the “via” is that it looks like half of an infinity symbol and it plays with this idea that it’s all connected. Information is a closed system in which we owe to one another.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You call this an actionable code of ethics. Actionable ethics are very tough to apply in the Wild West of the Web.


You’re hoping in some ways to shift the ethos of the Web. What do you think the chances are that this could become a standard?

MARIA POPOVA:  I don’t know what the chances are. I know that what’s at stake is – too important not to try. This is about baking in a level of transparency into how information travels online. And given we live in a, quote, unquote, “information economy,” thinking more about the currencies of information, including discovery and attribution, is fundamental to what we make of our information society.


But, again, it’s really about respecting each other as a community of content creators and curators [LAUGHS], for lack of a better word – and sharing.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  I can tell you’re desperate for a better word.

MARIA POPOVA:  I am desperate –


I can’t tell you how many people have gotten so hung up on the word that they miss the concept and they miss what’s at the heart of it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What do you think should be a new word?

MARIA POPOVA:  I think it –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Recombinator?

MARIA POPOVA:  - really doesn’t matter, because I think since the beginning of time editors and curators and journalists and whatever you want to call them have had a sole purpose of information, which is to frame for the audience what matters in the world and why. And an editor can do this in an opinion article, in a long feature piece. And a curator can do it by building a pattern of ideas about what matters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Maybe we should throw that out to the listeners. If you can find a better word for Maria, send it here and we’ll pass it along. Maria, thank you so much.

MARIA POPOVA:  Thank you so much, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Maria Popova is the founder of brainpickings.org and the creator of The Curator’s Code. You can take a look at it at curatorscode.org. “Hat tip,” David Carr.


Maria Popova

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Brooke Gladstone