Internet Curator Maria Popova Responds To Unfair Accusations With Civility

17 February 2013 by Jalees Rehman, posted in journalism, professionalism

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog is one of my favorite websites. Anyone who loves science, humanities, music and art can figure out why, by simply spending a few minutes browsing her site. One can find inspiring book recommendations, beautiful images and wonderful anecdotes about life-changing creative moments – all in one website. Maria Popova is one of the internet’s best curators of creative thought and I have bought a number of books after reading her descriptions and so far, I have never been disappointed by her picks.

I was a bit surprised to see the Reuters blog post “Blogonomics, Maria Popova edition” written by Felix Salmon, which accuses Maria of being “opaque” about her financial interests. She states that her site is ad-free and like most readers, I am happy about that, because I do not like to see large irritating banners advertising some new car or in one recent case on a different website, inviting me to join the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Maria asks for donations to support her website and thus help keep it ad-free.

I have also always assumed that she makes some money as an Amazon affiliate, because her book recommendations contain links that allow the reader to purchase the book at It is no big secret that many popular websites earn some extra cash by linking to Amazon.

Salmon’s accusation of Maria being “opaque” is based on an estimate by a blogger named Tony Bleymaier that Maria makes somewhere between $200,000 to $500,000 a year as an Amazon affiliate and additionally also makes large amounts of money by collecting donations. I clicked on the link provided to Bleymaier’s blog post, and I think that if the word “opaque” deserves to be used, it really applies to Bleymaier’s calculations. He does not have any true data, but wildly speculates about Popova’s income. It is puzzling that Felix Salmon would cite this data without clarifying that these are purely speculative numbers.

Salmon agrees that Maria Popova provides a very valuable service to the web, but he feels that Popova needs to disclose her financials and if she does make large amounts of money by being an Amazon affiliate, she should not be soliciting donations:

The problem, of course, is that if she’s outed as a member of the 1%, her donation income might dry up quite quickly, and she doesn’t want that. Does she ever wonder, though, whether her readers might need that tip-jar money more than she does?

To conclude that Popova is a member if the “1%” based on some very speculative numbers is ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as Salmon’s apparent mind-reading skills or his supposed concern for the financial status of her readers.

Salmon posted an email response by Maria, which I think is an excellent lesson in how one should respond in a civil manner to blatantly unfair accusations:

I will just excerpt the beginning of the letter here:

Hey Felix,

A few thoughts on the whole Amazon situation.

Tom Bleymeier emailed me about a year ago with some seemingly polite but decidedly passive-aggressive questions about the affiliate links. I wrote him back and answered as patiently, honestly, and completely as I could, over a series of several exchanges. (I’ll forward you those in a second if I can dig them out – there’s nothing to hide, but I was very miffed by his complete lack of basic journalistic hygiene in making out-of-context quotes from private emails, which are by default always off the record, public.)

At some point, however, I had to disengage – in part because it was becoming enormously time-consuming, but mostly because it became painfully clear that this was a person who had projected his villain image onto me and had absolutely no interest in understanding my motives, my reality, who I am, or why I get up in the morning.

Regarding his Tumblr article – first of all, those numbers are ludicrous! If Amazon gave me even a tenth of that a year after Uncle Sam takes his fair share, I’d be delighted. Delighted!

A biographical note for context – I’ve spent most of my life in what constitutes poverty by American standards. When I came to America for college, I worked up to four jobs at a time to pay my way through, and graduated with student debt. Not much changed until 2010. When I moved to New York late that year, the security deposit my landlord required (in a non-fancy part of Brooklyn) was more than all my scattered savings combined – $80 more, to be precise. So I went to an ATM across the street, took $80 out of my credit card, deposited it into my checking account, and handed the whole big check to the landlord. While I’ve come a long way since the end of 2010, and I’m proud and relieved to report that for the first time in my life I’m not perpetually broke, to peg me as a member of the 1% – “outed” as one – is not only absolutely ludicrous but also quite hurtful.


Maria calmly points out that Bleymaier was behaving in an unprofessional manner and that she decided to disengage from the email exchange with him. She also clarifies that her revenue from the affiliate links is a fraction of what Bleymaier and Salmon suggest. If I were Felix Salmon, I would apologize to Maria Popova and basically just point out that there may have just been some misunderstanding as to how one should disclose the fact that affiliate-links are indeed a revenue source, but perhaps not an “ad” in the classic sense.

Instead, Salmon followed up with a second post, in which he does not apologize for his odd “1%” accusation and basically perseveres about whether or not affiliate links are ads. Then Salmon says something really stupid which offends me as a human being and as a scientist:

To a certain extent, this is a female thing: positive happy bloggers tend to be female, as do their readers.* And when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter supports Maria Popova to the tune of $300 per year, there’s definitely an element there of supporting the sisterhood. Which is a good thing!

Without any data to suggest that “positive happy bloggers tend to be female”, he throws out this baseless statement that reveals a silly gender bias. The asterisk points to a note in which he clarifies (after much criticism in the Twittersphere) that not all positive happy bloggers are female, but he still does not provide any data to support his statement regarding gender being linked to "positive happy blogging". Why even bring gender into this? Is he suggesting that women's reviews are unfairly biased in favor of books, whereas reviews by men are more objective? What does "sisterhood" have to do with the question of affiliate links and ads? I do not want to speculate as to what Salmon’s motivations are for making such odd statements, because I cannot divine his thoughts, but these kinds of statements make it very difficult for me to take his analysis seriously.

I think the best lesson from this incident is to learn from how well Maria Popova responded to the accusations. Maria’s civility is what the blogosphere really needs.


Image credit: Public Domain images of turtle anatomy on Brain Pickings - Anatome Testudinis Europaeae by the German physician and naturalist Ludwig Heinrich Bojanus (1776–1827) – without any links to Amazon!

3 Responses to “Internet Curator Maria Popova Responds To Unfair Accusations With Civility”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Nice post, Jalees. I agree that Salmon did go overboard, especially when it came to basing his figures on an apparent less than reliable blogger.

    However he did point out that Popova's claim that her website was ad-free was not actually true. He seems to imply that Popova was deliberately hiding this fact which is again just his opinion. However this does not make his initial claim about affiliate links any less true. Affiliate links are a form of advertising and Popova should have openly acknowledged this. Of note she has done so now so that's that.

    I also agree about civility on the internet. It's much harder than one may think to keep cool when you're being personally attacked. One of my blog posts was publicly criticised by a prominent member of the science blogosphere once which prompted some very unfair comments about me from other people. But a civil comment and explanation quickly settled things. Also you get to see who your real friends are in those times as many, if not most, people just opt to follow the crowd.

    Your didn't follow the crowd. I applaud.

    • Jalees Rehman Reply | Permalink

      Khalil, you are correct that the discussion about disclosing affiliate links and that these represent a form of advertising is an important one. I think Popova responded appropriately by clarifying on her website that she earns money by being an Amazon affiliate:

      Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.

      I do find it very odd, however, that Salmon dragged gender into this discussion, instead of just focusing on the actual questions surrounding affiliate links.

      • Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

        Jalees, I will echo what I've said on Twitter. Let's not allow the gender bias proclamations (which are all true) detract us from Salmon's central thesis which is that affiliate links are a form of advertising and should be properly revealed as such. On the web especially, there is a tendency to overblow things out of proportion a little bit.

        On a concluding note, Popova promptly acknowledged her mistake in proclaiming that her website was ad-free and Salmon's post spurred her into making everything clear to her readers and potential donors. That's one good thing that came out from the exchange. Salmon's published a second post which made his point clearer. In there, he opted not to focus on unverified accusations or details about Popova's financial situation (in many ways, his part 2 blog post should have been the one that he should have published all along). Upon criticism of gender bias, Salmon included a footnote. I don't think there's much more he could have done.

        That's that for both sides. Let's not continue to drag the story on the basis of other peripherals.

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