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The Art of Curation: An Interview with Maria Popova from BrainPickings

As more and more people and brands take to producing digital content, a group of individuals has arisen with the goal of filtering the wheat from the chaff. I had the pleasure of interviewing the curator of the popular site Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, and picking her brain on this topic. The role of people like Maria will only become more important in the future, and her insights are well-worth consideration. If you have questions for Maria, feel free to leave them in the comments or send her a tweet. Enjoy.


Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

I founded and now edit Brain Pickings, a destination for indiscriminate curiosity. I also write for a handful of other publications, including Wired UK, GOOD and, as of this week, Huffington Post. I’m kind of obsessed with the TED conference; I went to an Ivy League school, but in my first month of watching TED Talks I got more insight and knowledge and inspiration than in my entire four years of “liberal arts education.” I really believe our own curiosity is our greatest and most powerful tool for personal growth – but I also think curiosity needs a curatorial approach that guides it, that lets it absorb the signal and tune out the noise. And I think content curators – examples of which abound, from traditional ones like The New York TImes to newer ones like the best, most interesting people on Twitter – are the cultural barometers that help harness our inherent curiosity in the most meaningful way possible.

Define success for Brain Pickings.

Success is getting a note from an artist saying he just started painting again after a fourteen-year hiatus because he found himself so stimulated by things on Brain Pickings he would’ve never ordinarily considered. Success is hitting the Publish button at 4AM, knowing you’ll only get two hours of sleep but a few thousand hungry readers will wake up to this article in their RSS reader in the morning and enjoy it with their cup of coffee. Success is giving share of voice to meaningful causes and projects, feeling the tangible effect of helping Invisible Children raise $5,000 to stop the child soldier epidemic in Uganda, or Tap Project raise awareness about clean drinking water, or a passionate independent artist find and connect with her audience.

Part of the appeal of an art gallery or museum, where our traditional notions of curation come from, is that they have pieces of work that no one else does. This isn’t the case online – many people who attempt to aggregate the best content online are often sharing the same content as someone else. How do you differentiate yourself in a space full of re-hashed content?

Brain Pickings is a highly curatorial endeavor. And the art of curation isn’t about the individual pieces of content, but about how these pieces fit together, what story they tell by being placed next to each other, and what statement the context they create makes about culture and the world at large. Every piece of content on Brain Pickings is hand-picked for embodying the sort of cultural interestingness at the core of our curatorial vision – it’s creative, compelling and makes a meaningful contribution to the world; it offers a justification to be curious and enriches you in the process of indulging that curiosity.

Great curation is also about pattern-recognition – seeing various pieces of culture and spotting similarities across them that paint a cohesive picture of a larger trend. Brain Pickings addresses this with our signature “omnibus” posts that spotlight 3-10 examples of a larger creative or cultural trend – cross-disciplinary conferences, urban guerrilla interventions, vintage-inspired posters for modern movies, hand-cut book sculptures, you name it.

Do you have any business besides Brain Pickings? Does Brain Pickings contribute in any ways to that?

I recently took a job at TBWA\Chiat\Day, which is a direct result of Brain Pickings – the Chief Creative Officer of the agency was a reader and big fan of Brain Pickings, so he reached out to me and asked me to come onboard. I also do quite a bit of freelance writing for various magazines and online publications. I’ve gotten all of these gigs through Brain Pickings.

Are there any brands you’ve seen that are doing a great job at curating relevant content? Coudal comes to mind in the interactive space – any others?

Using “brand” in the broadest sense of the word – and not in the narrow, marketing sense – there are a number of publishers who do a fine curatorial job. Jason Kottke is a prime example – he has built a powerful personal brand out of his nose for interestingness. I often hear people comparing Brain Pickings to Kottke, which I find rather flattering, but the irony is that I didn’t “discover” Kottke until about two years into my publishing experiment with Brain Pickings.

I’m also a big fan of OpenCulture, a blog run by Stanford’s Dan Colman, which curates free fascinating, curious and educational resources, everything from a great vintage interview of David Lynch to archival footage from the dawn of jazz to free online philosophy courses.

In an email format, VeryShortList is an excellent example of tightly curated, consistently interesting yet indiscriminately cross-disciplinary content – one email per day, featuring just one interesting item that can be anything from a great new book to an entertaining website to a little-known silent film. Though I must admit that since they were sold to the Observer, they’ve become a bit prone to featuring items already featured by other top curators a few days, or sometimes weeks, earlier.

Tina Roth Eisenberg, a.k.a. Swiss Miss, is a phenomenal barometer of design, a consistent and endlessly tasteful curator.

Generally, I think the one common thread across these examples is that they’re all built on the curatorial judgment of an individual, and I think that’s important. Curation is all about pattern-recognition, seeing how various and diverse pieces of content fit together under the same taste umbrella or along the same narrative path, so the guiding principle has to be the sole storyteller with a strong point of view. In her recent talk at the PSFK conference, Tina actually made that same point, saying that having multiple authors on a curatorial blog dilutes its authenticity – I fully agree.

And, yes, Coudal is definitely a top-of-mind example of a brand built on curation, though their model of having monthly guest curators can be hit-or-miss. I read their FreshSignals feed religiously and respect them a great deal, but lately I’ve seen an increasing number of unintentional reposts, things that they’ve already featured as little as two days earlier, or regurgitation – content that has already made the mainstream rounds across the BoingBoings of the world. Which only illustrates the importance of having a singular vision and narrative, rather than a flavor-of-the-month approach to the curatorial yardstick.

What is your biggest source of traffic at this point? Google? Twitter? Facebook? Stumble Upon? Do you do any advertising?

Twitter, by far. Another bit of irony – I first started the Twitter feed as an outpost for stuff that didn’t make it into Brain Pickings, mostly out of frustration because the site only features one item per day but I was coming across many more Brain-Pickings-worthy pieces of content. So I launched the Twitter account, hoping existing readers would follow the blog onto Twitter as an extension, kind of like the extras on a DVD release. But what ended up happening is that the Twitter feed attracted its own audience, outgrew the blog, and now people discover Brain Pickings through my Twitter account – the exact opposite of what I set out to do.

StumbleUpon is also pretty significant, though I find it to be very true to its legendary spiky nature – a single post can go wildly viral on SU, spike traffic for a few days or weeks, then fall right back down. I find SU works better for the more visual posts, particularly the “omnibus” types articles I do that feature 3-10 examples of a certain design trend, art style or other pattern I’ve spotted across various pieces of visual art.

I don’t do paid advertising, purposefully, though I do get approached by potential advertisers regularly. The Amazon widgets on the site feature books and products we’ve reviewed on Brain Pickings and recommend. All the “ads” you see are actually pro-bono real estate that I’ve offered to companies and causes whose products, services and missions I believe in. I think it’s all part of the reader experience, visually and conceptually, so the third-party content should answer to the same curatorial standards and ideals as the site’s content – innovation, social consequence, smart design, or any other form of creating meaning in the world. Brain Pickings is a platform for visibility for ideas and projects that matter. I try to make the “advertising” environment reflect the same ideal.

I did have a sponsor for the email newsletter, mostly for cost reasons because it’s becoming rather pricy as the subscriber base grows, to the point where reader donations are no longer enough to cover costs. Alas – damn you, recession! – we’ve just lost the newsletter sponsor, so the slot is currently open.

What tools do you use to sift through the noise online? Do you have any established methods?

I think this whole media landscape is so new we can’t really call any method “established,” don’t you think?

I live and die by Google Reader, where I exercise something I call “meta-curation” – hand-picking a list of consistently interesting sources, then letting them do their own curation of specific content, and consuming that. I do the same on Twitter, where I’m obsessively selective about whom I follow – I have more than 16,000 followers and only follow 250 or so people because it’s a content discover platform for me, not a social networking mechanism. I only follow interesting linkers – people who share links in at least 90% of their tweets – and use that to find content I wouldn’t normally discover via my RSS subscriptions.

I also read good old fashioned magazines – only three though: GOOD, Wired and FastCompany. Oddly enough, I do find quite a bit of content that way. I guess it’s because print has a different editorial process, so it bypasses the kind of regurgitation that happens when a piece of content hits BoingBoing and then spreads across all the smaller blogs and Twitter.

Finally, I often get good leads from readers. I read every single email I receive, sometimes dozens per day, and while many of them are PR pitches, some are either just interesting leads from longtime readers who “get” Brain Pickings, or pitches that are actually smart, have done their homework, and offer something in the vein of the site – which I respect and actually encourage.

Do you think someone needs to be an established thought leader to gain a following as a curator, or is this something that someone can start with from the beginning?

Well, I’m obviously biased, because I’m far from an “established thought leader” myself. But I do I think that if you put out great content, with passion and consistency, it will attract an audience. Of course, some established personalities are also great curators on Twitter (such as TED’s Chris Anderson and actor Alyssa Milano) or excellent bloggers (like Clay Shirky and, okay, Seth Godin) but these are, in my experience, exceptions. Just because someone is a professional speaker or published author doesn’t mean they’ll master the narrative demands of a different medium and be interesting on it.

The most a known name can give you is a foot in the door. But if you fail to compel and intrigue, people will shut that door and all you’ll end up with will be a broken foot. Conversely, if you’re a great curator, people will let you in, invite you to stay. And they’ll tell their friends about you. That’s the beauty of the social web, its economy of interestingness is a complete meritocracy and the best curators are those who make the most consistent investments – of time, of energy, of passion.

As the amount of content continues to increase online, do you see the role of curators such as yourself and others (e.g. Kottke, Coudal, Tyler Cowen) continuing to increase as well? How do you see the future of curation playing out?

I think the need for curators will increase disproportionately to the number. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where there will be too many excellent curators because, like any market economy, there’s a limited pool of resources – in this case, people’s attention and loyalty – so an increase in the number of curators will simply raise the bar for what constitutes great content curation, rather than dilute the art of it. We’ll probably see more of a specialization, with many curators branching out into narrower areas of expertise.

For instance, Coudal has already started doing this specialization, to a degree. They have certain content collections they’ve maintained over time with meticulous curation. Their Museum of Online Museums is one. They also have an impressive archive of art, film and other media material by and about Stanley Kubrick. And while I’m in no way disputing their superb curatorial judgement today, perhaps one day we’ll reach a point where they choose to focus on just being the go-to source for all things Stanley Kubrick because that’s a niche they really excel at and can fully own to a degree no other curator can come even close to.

I think we’ll see a fair amount of such fragmentation into narrower niches, leaving only a handful of generalist-curators who have the endurance, compulsiveness and contempt for sleep needed to remain both widely informed and consistently interesting.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I apologize for the number of times I’ve just used the word “curation” and its derivatives. I feel like we’ve reached a cultural point at which every time someone uses the word “curation” in reference to content and publishing, an actual museum curator kills a kitten.

Thanks Maria. It was a pleasure hearing from you; we look forward to keeping in touch. Everyone else, remember to go check out Brain Pickings!

Comments

  1. April 21, 2010 @ 6:00 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by curationstation: RT @brainpicker: I recently gave an interview on “the art of curation” for @neboweb, for those interested http://is.gd/bARSp

  2. April 21, 2010 @ 8:10 am
    Martin says:

    Pure gold – this is what Maria is doing – she combines scattered pieces of awesomeness into a big molecule of curated inspiration :)

    Great inverview – and yes, pretty often what we set out to do changes while we are doing it, I follow brainpickings mostly via twitter and it is the only twitter stream I read entirely from start to end – every day.

    Keep up the good job Maria!

  3. April 21, 2010 @ 1:50 pm
    Kevin says:

    Great interview! I love Brain Pickings, and especially the Twitter account links. Almost all the interesting things I find on Twitter come from that account.

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