The Curator's Guide to the Galaxy

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How to steal other people's ideas (without being a jerk about it)

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How do you avoid being a jerk on the Internet? (Beyond, you know, all the obvious ways?) When you post someone's words or images on your blog or your Facebook feed, what's the best way to make clear that it's someone else's words or images? When you pass along an idea on Twitter, how do you show your followers that you're sharing, rather than creating? How do you maximize the generosity ... and minimize the jerkery?

If you're not entirely sure, you're not alone. Linking -- in the narrow sense and the broader one -- is not as simple as it seems. The Internet is still incredibly young, and it's grown up organically. Because of those two things, its users haven't yet come together to determine a fully standardized system for attribution. We're making it up as we go along. Which leads to a lot of experimentation (the hat-tip and the via and the RT and the MT!) ... and to a lot of confusion. On the web, the line between sharing and stealing -- between being a helpful conduit of information and being, on the other hand, a jerk -- can be frighteningly thin.

That could be changing, though. This weekend, Maria Popova (whom you may know as an Atlantic contributor, or as the author of Brainpickings, and either way as one of the web's foremost experts on the art of curation) is launching The Curator's Code, a system -- and, she hopes, a movement -- to "honor and standardize the attribution of discovery across the web." The new project offers both a code of ethics and a common standard for borrowing and sharing. It aims to provide a framework for celebrating curation by way of formalizing it -- or, as Popova describes it, of "keeping the whimsical rabbit hole of the Internet open by honoring discovery."

The code is based on two basic types of attribution, Popova explains, each indicated by a special unicode character (along the lines of ™ for "trademark" and © for "copyright"):

stands for "via" and signifies a direct link of discovery, to be used when you simply repost a piece of content you found elsewhere, with little or no modification or addition.

stands for the common "HT" or "hat tip," signifying an indirect link of discovery, to be used for content you significantly modify or expand upon compared to your source, for story leads, or for indirect inspiration encountered elsewhere that led you to create your own original content.

The unicode characters themselves are hotlinked to the Curator's Code site -- a system that, Popova notes, "allows the ethos of attribution to spread as curious readers click the symbol to find out what it is." The site itself offers a bookmarklet that allows users, it says, "to keep the attribution symbols handy." (It also offers a delightfully meta explanation of the Curator's Code ethos through some influence-and-attribution-related quotes and an examination of the path they take through the online ecosystem.) It features, as well, a downloadable Curator's Code badge pack that allows web publishers to display their support for the Curator's Code, in addition to an offer to sign a public pledge promising to abide by its ethics.

The site is comprehensive, and ecosystem-oriented, and primed for virality. Which is, of course, by design. Popova is going for widespread adoption; the goal of systemization carries the complementary goal of reiteration. Whether credit can be standardized with the Code's characters is an open question -- it took the quotation mark, after all, hundreds of years to be codified as a mechanism of attribution. But this is just the beginning, Popova notes. And in the (literally) hyperconnected world of the web, conventions can come about much more quickly than they ever have before. What Creative Commons has done for the attribution of imagery, the Curator's Code wants to do for the attribution of discovery.

Popova has been working on the Curator's Code, she told me, for pretty much a year -- an outgrowth of her continual frustration about the online ecosystem's lack of attribution standards. The idea was honed, as any good idea about the power of collaborative creativity should be, through conversations -- in this case, with Popova's fellow curator-of-Internet-interestingness, Tina Roth Eisenberg (whom you might know as Swiss Miss), and with the artist and designer Kelli Anderson, who designed the Curator's Code site and is Popova's collaborator on the project. Together, Popova says, "we've devised a simple system that any publisher and curator of information can use across the social web and on any publishing platform."

But the site is about philosophy as much as it is about practicality. Curation is, Popova has argued, a particular form of authorship. There is creativity in the combinatorial, she says; to bring separate pieces of content -- different words and images and ideas and assumptions -- together, in a new and compelling way, is, Popova believes, "a form of creative and intellectual labor." It is art. And it deserves to be valued, and recognized, as such.

The Curator's Code is the declaration of that idea. It's a code of ethics that brings a system of ethics along with it. And at the core of that system is the notion -- and, actually, the fact -- that it is the link that builds the Internet.

With that in mind: Here is a final link to the Curator's Code site, and another to Popova's explanation of it. And also!

 Curator's Code

 Brain Pickings



Image: Curator's Code.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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