The Brain Pickings “Support” page reads: “Keeping it all ad-free…means it’s subsidized by the generous support of readers like you.” In a revealing email exchange outlined below, Popova told me that 25% of her book recommendations come from the data that she receives from Amazon after her readers click the ads in her articles and go on to make purchases (she sees, and makes commissions off of, the other items they place in their shopping cart, including books that she didn’t link to). I found this to be interesting given that she made waves in the journalism and blogging community by publishing the “Curator’s Code” last year which urged website owners to be more upfront in attributing where they found the content they post. It was also ironic given that she regularly writes diatribes in publications such as The Atlantic and NY Times railing against the “filter bubble” which is the common practice of websites using algorithms to recommend to users things that similar users have also read or purchased.
An interview in The Guardian last month drew me to revisit our weeklong email exchange from last Spring. I had inquired about whether she would notify users of her ad practices, and I was surprised to receive a defensive response coupled with a condescending sign off that read, “I wish you the very best as you continue to explore and navigate the world of media and morality.” Not being the open letter type, I wrote back with a few reasons why she may be misleading users, and after we had exchanged 7 or 8 more emails, she agreed to change her pitch to “banner-free” instead of “ad-free.” When she changed it back to “ad-free” within 6 weeks, I was disappointed, but still not the open letter type. When she ignored my next three attempts over the summer to ask her why she still claimed to be ad-free, I figured she must have just really need the donations to keep the site going.
But then I read The Guardian article last month which quoted Brain Pickings user numbers (millions per month) that point to potentially millions of dollars in deception on the table, then I did a google search and found out that a for-profit LLC was formed in New York called “Brain Pickings LLC” just one month after my email inquiry to her (odd timing for a site in its 7th year at the time), and then I saw more articles by Popova condemning media, journalism, writers, and the filter bubble….and then I realized it was time for an open-letter and thought this was a worthwhile place to start a much needed discussion about affiliate advertising, Pulitzer Prize winners, the journalism and blogging industries, how E.B. White started all of this and how Richard Feynman can end it.
Describing how affiliate ads affect writers is necessary given that the reason Popova told me she uses the “ad-free” pitch is that she claims her affiliate advertising links are not ads. Popova uses Amazon’s Affiliate links program - which means if I click a book or product link from her site and buy that book, and another book, and a movie, diapers, a shirt, and anything else - she receives up to 10% of my entire shopping cart’s value from that trip to Amazon…and she also gets to see what I purchased. Given the non-Silicon Valley nature of her site, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe she didn’t realize that these are a form of advertising (even though the first feature in bold on the Amazon Affiliates page is “Advertising,” and in every description of the service, Amazon calls the revenue made by partner websites “advertising fees.”).
Maria informed me she doesn’t define the links in her articles as ads because they are all “books that I would feature anyhow” and that her “different intention” means that she is not seeking to sell the books. I pointed out that in Google’s quest to organize the world’s information, there are tens of millions of times per day where the top Google result is also the top Ad that they display, but in these cases they don’t say “this is the one we were going to show you anyway” and hide the fact that it is an ad. Advertising is a business process defined by the way money changes hands - intent does not play a part in the definition. Roger Federer probably already likes Rolexes, but as soon as they pay him millions of dollars, he is considered to be advertising their product. Aside from the fact that businesses don’t get to create their own definition of advertising, Maria’s claim that they were all books she would feature anyhow was contradictory to the statement she wrote in the same email thread, which proves that her advertisements do in fact change what books she offers to users:
“a major reason I use Amazon is…data they give me - it tells me what other books Brain Pickings readers are buying on Amazon…I’d say I’ve found at least a quarter of the books I myself have purchased and read over the past few years through Brain Pickings readers that way.”
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Harrison Salisbury was the subject of an E.B. White letter featured by Maria last Spring that spawned our correspondence. In 1975, Xerox offered Salisbury $55,000 to write an article in Esquire magazine. White expresses his concern about the erosion of press if writers start accepting money from advertisers this way. In her commentary, Popova noted that she “has been publishing an ad-free curiosity catalog supported by reader donations for the past seven years.” Reading the article I could only think what reader response would be if the article concluded with “Disclaimer: I make money each time you click a link in my articles and buy a book.”
There are important differences that make affiliate ads more subversive than the Xerox-Esquire scenario. The Affiliate form of advertising invites more detriment to quality writing because it actually requires an author to interrupt the reader with a link and it incentivizes authors to change their tone such that they convince the reader to go all the way through with the purchase (which is necessary for them to receive their kickback). At least in the golden days of tainted journalism the author was paid upfront, and the ad was on the opposite page, not in the article itself, so they were still incentivized to write a quality article about anything they wanted - health, art, sports - that people thought was interesting enough to read, while hoping that wandering eyes would bring eyeballs to the Xerox Ad on the facing page. I’m not saying this offer was a good thing, simply noting that if Brain Pickings is building a brand based on anti-ad sentiments, it might be fair to explain how the revenue generating practices of the site work. The Guardian article described the site as an “antidote to Google” - ironic given the identical business models of Brain Pickings and Google, both of which make money as users click links in the normal course of using each site…the difference being that Google makes it known which links are ads.
What kind of user and ad numbers are we talking about? Where do the numbers in the title come from? The Guardian author asked Popova why she didn’t let advertisers onto her site even though it draws 1.2M readers and 3M page views per month. Not acknowledging the affiliate ads, Maria referenced a 1923 letter to a newspaper editor about integrity in writing, and responded by saying “It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first…I don’t believe in this model.” Working out the math, and knowing how display advertisements work (those are the ones on the sides and at the top of many websites - including the websites of The Atlantic and NY Times, where Popova is a regular contributor) it turns out Popova would most likely lose money if she switched from her current affiliate ad model to the display ad model that The Guardian writer refers to. Assume that Popova used an ad network like Google Adwords which is the typical way websites make money on display ads. The average click value of display ads in the book industry is typically worth less than affiliate ads - and if Popova added display ads to her site, it would take readers off of the page prematurely, preventing them from clicking the in-article affiliate ads. Reducing the number of conversions through the more lucrative affiliate funnel is why Brain Pickings would likely lose money if they switched to a display ad model from the current affiliate ad model, and why the response to The Guardian’s question could have been “there are no display ads because the site makes more money off of affiliate ads.”
Let’s work with The Guardian’s quote of 3M page views, and the knowledge Brain Pickings has been around for 8 years. An index of Brain Pickings showed approximately 5-6 Amazon ads per article, and there are typically 3 articles published per day. Most pages have more than one article, but for the most conservative number of ad impressions let’s assume one article per page, yielding 6 ads per page. At 3M page views per month, this is about 18M affiliate ads served per month, or 216M impressions per year. Placing the average book that Brain Pickings links to at $17-$20 and accounting for a few extra bucks for the other items that users are clearly placing in their cart, the assumption is that the average Amazon purchase is $20-$25, of which Popova likely gets between 7-10%. Let’s use this to make the assumption that $2 is the amount Brain Pickings makes on each Amazon customer originating from her site. With 216M impressions, a 0.1% conversion rate on those ads at $2 per conversion would bring in $432,000 per year. Looking from another direction - with 1.2M monthly followers, if 10% buy something from Amazon each year, we’re at 120k users bringing in $2 of revenue each, or $240,000. Over 8 years, ad revenue of $200k-$400k would total $1.6M-$3.2M, but assuming it took 4 or 5 years to get the user base ramped up to significant numbers, maybe the total is half that amount, on the order of $1M. As for donation numbers, Maria has said her biggest donors are her email followers - a newsletter with over 180,000 users. Only looking at this group, ignoring the site visitors, if 5% of the newsletter readers donate $10 per year, it’s $90k in donations. If 10% are donating, it’s $180k, or if they’re donating more on average, the guesses change in different ways - in a recent NY Times article a reader was quoted who gives $25 per month ($300 per year), saying that it was like “donating to a public radio station” to her. If donations have been around $50k-$100k for 8 years, are total donation revenues upwards of $500k? Retrospective numbers are difficult given unknown growth to the current reader following of over 1.2M, but looking out 5 or 10 years, if donation and ad revenues are in the $200k-$500k range, then the total dollars changing hands will certainly reach seven figures if it hasn’t already.
Certainly, there are too many variations in website user bases and site numbers to be accurate about projections of this sort, so the main point of the mathematical exercise isn’t really how much, it’s why is something being hidden? Before spending any more time tweaking which numbers are right or wrong, the timely incorporation last Spring may be more telling than any calculations. Within a month after being asked whether she was being honest to users about the financials of her site, a company called Brain Pickings, LLC was established in New York. In a 2010 article, Popova said Brain Pickings was not-for-profit…not that this would be much better - a one person not-for-profit (different in some states than a non-profit), doing no charitable work that makes money from ads and donations can pay all revenue out in salaries to its single employee, maybe even landing better tax considerations. After our email exchange, Maria changed the wording on her site to “banner-free” for 6 weeks - almost exactly covering the span of time from the last email to me until the end of the LLC formation. If only because I never heard back from her again, it appears a very real possibility that “banner-free” was a great way to quell her one inquisitive user for long enough to hide the financials of the site. Were you ever a non-profit? Would you be willing to include an About section or Terms of Service on your site that shows what kind of organization it is? If there was a change in business formation last year, none of your users were notified - would you tell them if their donations were now to a for-profit LLC if that is the case? For the record, this could be a different company - I would simply be very surprised if there is another Brain Pickings in New York City, and without any legal terms of service or information posted about the entity behind the site, this is an open question.
In the mass of money changing hands around the world each day, as long as I’m not being duped by the donation plea, why do I feel like it’s worth bringing up? Besides potentially being able to save a few thousand people hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years, my mind was altered significantly after reading the quote from Princeton professor and State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter who, in the aforementioned NY Times article, was the one who said she gives $300 per year because it was like donating to a public radio station. This made me wonder which non-profit, which struggling writer, or which innovative startup would have received that $300 of consumer spending money if Brain Pickings readers knew that the site was not funded solely of off their donations? Is there a real public radio station or library that is out $500,000 over the last few years from book lovers? Would charity: water receive $500k more in donations over the next 5 years? There is a disturbing apathy in our culture, especially among the young and tech-savvy, to ignore the economic interconnectedness of things that actually affect them negatively. Hearing about a fraudulent spammer halfway around the world who conned a neighbor into giving up bank account information, a young person trying to build the next big thing in his garage would probably scoff at the non-tech-savvy for getting what they deserve, and laugh at the simple method of the spam-attack used by the scammer. Rarely is there a realization that every time one million dollars is sucked out of the consumer spending pot fraudulently, that’s one million dollars that is now not available in the market for their fledgling startup, their non-profit, or their venture. How many of Brain Pickings’ readers are writers, designers, or freelancers deserving of those dollars?
The average reader of Brain Pickings appears to be in the design/history/bookworm demographic (not exclusively, this is a very superficial stab at the median user), likely in the mid to upper income range, including types who donate to public radio stations (she touts Josh Groban and Drew Carey as users), but also just not quite as tech savvy as your regular Reddit reader who would sniff out an affiliate ad right away and laugh at the Donation plea. Maria knows that her readers are unaware of the affiliate ads - in her emails with me she was impressed that I was “aware enough to bring up these issues.” And in the 6 week stint where she did take down “ad-free,” she told me it was because “it seems to matter to you and it doesn’t matter to me in the least.” Then why did ad-free go back up 2 months later? It would be really disappointing if your donation numbers dropped during those two months, proving that ad-free did make a difference and driving you to change it back, because then you would have proof that the deception was affecting your bottom-line, yet you would still be doing it anyway. Since re-posting “ad-free,” Popova has also added the ability to sign up for a subscription of recurring donations - an interesting feature for an incorporated LLC.
I imagine some readers of Brain Pickings are loyal enough that they’d give money even if they knew there were ads, but it sure seems like they should have all the information at hand to make their own choice. An index of Brain Pickings shows that Richard Feynman is one of the most cited topics. Recently, Popova wrote how much she admired a graduation address he gave in 1974, where he was talking to scientists about the duty they have to make sure to portray things correctly to the layperson so as not to misrepresent something that the layperson may not understand. Feynman said:
“…details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong…you should explain to the layman what you’re doing — and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision…I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”
Maria, there are many questions your readers could ask and requests they could make at this point - many of which may even be avoidable with legal or semantic loopholes, so the simplest summary question I can think to ask is: What do you think Richard Feynman would do in your situation?
THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. & I FELT IT FROM DAY 1.
come on curators, try harder.
oh gurl, i feel you
Portrait of a Young Man Planning Posts on Tumblr
sofa king meta!!!
Brilliant social commentary sneaks into some weirdo Twitter streams day to day without the glory and fanfare it deserves. Bill Richards, the wack magic brain behind @spaceship_earth, nails popular culture with hyper stylized outsider content. (He’s also a sick motion graphics designer, btw.)
His feed veils its cutting wit in weird & dumbed down prose. For months, I’ve been meaning to catch up with him for a proper chat / interview where I can start to unravel how he and similar tweeps have essentially created a new genre of micro-literature. But until then, let’s talk endless breadsticks (above)!
This comic strip was inspired by the BEST TWEET EVER, originally focusing on shrimp, by @grifteezy. Somehow the endless shrimp turned into breadsticks in Bill’s mind, which I find hilarious. It still works in painting a pastiche of one seafood based, crustacean-buffet-specialtied fancy fast food chain. Shrimp or breadsticks, anyone?
Yaeba means double tooth in Japanese, but it doesn’t describe major dental deformities, but rather the vampire-like look obtained when the two molars crowd the canines pushing them forward to create a fang effect.
According to some sources, yaeba gives girls a feline look which is apparently makes them even more attractive, while others say it’s this little imperfection that makes pretty girls look more approachable as opposed to the flawless magazine cover models of the western world.
Dr. Yoko Kashiyama and her staff at the Plaisir Dental Salon, in Ginza district, perform all kinds of cosmetic procedures, but yaeba is definitely among the most popular. Using non-permanent adhesive, she glues custom-made artificial teeth onto the natural canines to lengthen them and make them stand out.
Completely fascinated with this trend. Wanting to dive into childlike teeth semiotics but I’m late for brunch. Relevant cyborg feminism or other theory anyone?
I want to enjoy this matrix by the writers of The Decision Book, but I cant. It may have jumped the shark, with too many things lumped in: cultural elements, behaviors/ actions, and brands. Meet ain’t spelled that way and I’m pretty sure that anyone who says Marriage has jumped the shark is just trying to be salacious.
But there are probably lessons here. Beyond any assessed items, this makes me want to create matrices like these more often. Or to make sure my some of my team does (I’m specifically looking at you R.G., Rosie, Gabe, & Nicole)! Also, it makes me want to jump to the defense of the jumped elements above. And, more pragmatically —to suss out an individual’s internal process of sorting out what feels fresh or tired and figure out how that ladders up to a collective view.
The consumer journey might flow something like this: discovery (of an element) — acquisition — (purchase or trial) — evaluation (does it have a place in the consumer’s life or not, if so what is that place?).
Zooming up to a meta assessment of how or where these things fall might fall on the zeitgeist quadrants of sharkjumpery is fun and possibly insightful but also borderline ludicrous. There’s probably a legit way to get there via research, but this quick drawing doesn’t pay off its assertions with any methodology. Still, there *is* something classic and eternal about cooking, vinyl, Ray-Ban, and Mark Rothko, so maybe there’s a grain of insight here afterall?
This is basically how the internet works now, and it’s wonderful: a manifesto on sharing.
interesting is in the mind of the beholder. by mads lynnerup
Elsewhere we’ve seen shit hit the fan: in England, in Spain, in Egypt, in China, and recently in Wisconsin. Whatever this is, it may still be small, and it’s just starting, but it’s the beginning of our thing, or it could be. In a way it’s promising that people are not accepting that this is happening. Even in New York, people float right past it. The media dismisses but it continues to grow.
There are lots of signs. Technology is mobilizing us like a galaxy of data bats and bugs crawling out of the manhole and into the cloud. Suddenly it’s more than Wall Street being occupied, and for a generation that never imagined it would have any conflict to contemplate besides: do I want the Jetta or Tuareg? New York or Silicon Valley? After studying hard to be successful— doing all the tough things we were told would pay off, the proverbial yawning chasm between reasonable expectation and reality seems to be widening. Next to the debt of our nation’s young, dystopia perhaps seems viable? Or at least preferable a future of sliding hope in unemployment offices, in cubicles with fluorescent light, in mall jobs, and repossessed cars, in empty inboxes.
This time somehow, it seems that it’s not only the radical underground and disgruntled outcasts who find themselves carrying signs, but it’s also the honor students of bumper sticker fame. It’s the professionals and academics who bought into the system earnestly and never imagined that they themselves would be the ones fighting for their own right for a fair share of normal.
If you know me, you know that I’m not all that political— that I’m obsessed with art, technology, and brands, but no brand, technology, or art can inspire like what might be happening right now within the collective itself. The truest art is watching in real time as my generation taps the nascent potential of technology to breed a new kind of (h)activism. Maybe the new brand is authenticity, and the shiny new technology feature set to announce is milk and vinegar to take the sting of mace out of a stranger’s eyes.
Image via here
Berlin’s startup and app development landscape extends far beyond Soundcloud — it’s best known app. Clips from this really great piece from RWW, both explain how and why the startup scene in Berlin seems to be growing with a particular strength in visual equity and also providing some specific fruits of this cultural and tech explosion:
“The new-generation startups and their founders no longer shoot for successful companies in their country (or in Europe), their mission is pure world domination,” says Reber. Reber says that Berlin startups who emphasise design “live perfection,” something he sees as a key to success:
“Users can see the passion of the team behind their products. That’s my number one advice for everyone; take the time you need to create the best result you’re able to create, forget ‘release early, release often’ and move to ‘It’s done, when it’s done’.”While for a long time it was regarded as the home of ‘clone’ startups that copied successful American ideas, Berlin’s reputation is changing, and a unique flair for design is helping to drive that message forward. Indeed, 6Wunderkinder posted a ‘call to arms’on its blog earlier this month when it called on fellow startups in the city to ‘Stand up’ and declared that “The anti-copycat revolution starts now”:“We’re now in an era of immense innovation and, in the words of Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. Germany, and in particular Berlin Mitte, is growing organically once again – in a crazy, outside the box kinda way. Fresh ideas are now finally bringing fresh money.”
Some particular examples of killer design in startups coming from Berlin right now:
- EyeEm is a photo sharing app that takes a little bit of Instagram, a pinch of Color and a sprinkling of Photovine and creates a new way of sharing photos that automatically adds context based on who you’re with, where you are and what you’re photographing. A beautifully simple interface makes some powerful behind-the-scenes technology easy to understand for anyone. While its location-centric approach to photo sharing might not be for everyone, there’s no denying that it’s a beautiful app to look at and use.
- WahWah.fm (pictured above) is an app that allows you to share the music you’re listening to on your iPhone with other people, so that they listen to exactly the same thing as you. It’s something of a Turntable.fm for people on the go, creating a radio station right from your phone. The design flair in the interface is stunning.
- Wunderlist from 6Wunderkinder is a cross-platform to-do list service that shuns the usual functional look of the genre for something a lot more stylish. (pictured above)
- SoundCloud is perhaps the best known Berlin startup right now, and the UI for its social audio platform is a thing of beauty. Just look at these example shots from its iPhone app, for example.
- There are many more examples out there, Readmill, which we praised for its looks just this week, for example. There are others which we can’t mention yet, as they want to keep below the radar. However, Amen and Gidsy (both yet to officially launch) are getting tongues wagging in the cafes of Berlin amongst those who have used them.