The Linked List and the Curator’s Code

A subtle shift occurred on the Internet over the weekend. Maria Popova unveiled at South by Southwest a project she’s been working on for the last year called the Curator’s Code. Popova—a serial aggregator on her site and on Twitter—is hoping to encourage content aggregators to give a little back to the original source through links that trace the origin of the work. The site isn’t much—it’s a plea for transparency coupled with a few tools to facilitate citations—but Popova’s idea has made a palpable splash.

The Curator’s Code is only a start, but I’m happy it’s out there for two reasons. One, I’m a writer. I want my work to be spread as far and wide as possible, but I’d also like to be noted as the original source. And two, I started dabbling in aggregation—sharing, really—two months ago when I launched the Linked List. Before that, I thought a lot about what it means to be a responsible and ethical aggregator. In the process, I developed my own code of conduct which I think does more to respect original content than the Curator’s Code.

The entire point of the Linked List is to send people out to other sites. That’s it, really. I view the Linked List as a themed Twitter account without the character limit. If you think that way, everything else follows naturally: Don’t copy too much of the original article. Don’t summarize it, either. Get people to click the link. Even the design I chose for the Linked List emphasizes outbound traffic. The headline—often the most visible link in the post—is a link to the article itself. The permalink to my post—the infinity symbol just to the right of the headline—is almost an afterthought. Everything about the Linked List is meant to send you away from Per Square Mile. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

Oh, and there’s one more principle I follow—don’t be a dick. When I’m crafting a Linked List post, I think to myself, Would I be OK with my work being shared in this way?

That’s an easy question for me to answer. I’m a writer, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some, ahem, aggressive aggregation. Take my article on income inequality in the Roman Empire. Russia Today repackaged it without a link (an oversight they later corrected). Business Insider and the Huffington Post excerpted a small paragraph and summarized most of the rest. I have no idea how much traffic they got from their versions, but I do know that among the three of them I received well under 1,000 hits.

Fortunately, not all aggregators are created equal. From that same post, Matthew Yglesias on his blog at Slate pulled one factoid from my article, added a quick take, and sent me over 1,000 visitors. On other posts, the editors at Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish have sent me a few thousand readers by tastefully excerpting. And I have great respect for John Pavlus: Where Gizmodo and Business Insider were happy to copy and post one of my infographics—sending me around 1 percent or less of the traffic their posts received—John not only asked permission to use the image for a post at Fast.Co Design, but he interviewed me for his piece.

It would be great if “overzealous aggregation” meant the sort of effort that John put into his post, but it doesn’t. The Curator’s Code is a first step, but it’s not a complete solution—it would be easy to use the “via” and “heard through” links as a license to over-aggregate.

I signed a pledge to honor the Curator’s Code, but I’m also sticking to the principles I outlined above. They may not be perfect and they may not work for everyone, but I think they’re good signposts for when I’m working on the Linked List.

What do you think? Do Linked List entries catch your attention enough to send you away (and then hopefully return)? Am I striking the right balance between aggregation and original content? Does the Curator’s Code go far enough? Or do my principles do more to respect original content?

Thanks to the support of readers like you, Per Square Mile remains independent and ad-free.

If you enjoy what you read, please consider supporting the site with a donation.