Disclosure: I am friends with Maria Popova. Well, we're not great friends. Definitely Facebook friends--and occasionally we'll grab coffee have an in person chat. We should do more of those, since we work next door to each other. In full disclosure, maybe I'm writing this post so we could be better friends. I'm not sure. It seems like it could be a bias. Also, in full disclosure, Maria works in a space called Studiomates that is not only full of awesome people, but the network of people around it is throwing off cool venture backed startups left and right like Sherpaa, Editorially, and Tinybop. Given that I am in the venture capital business, part of my job, and the way I get paid, is to back the best, most creative, and interesting people building stuff in New York City, so maintaining some kind of a relationship with people like Maria is indirectly tied to my income. Full disclosure, my fund, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, has backed two of these companies, the founders of which are undoubtedly subscribers to Maria's site, Brain Pickings. My financial support of Brain Pickings as a subscriber, and my written support of her on this blog my lead to inspiring and creative thoughts on behalf of the founders I've backed, which, in turn, may lead to product features, strategic marketing intiatives, and brainstorms that are tied to the success of those companies which I would financially benefit from. My written support of Maria and her site my also brand me as a venture capitalist who generally supports awesomeness, which my lead to increased dealflow--both directly from the Studiomates community, the Brooklyn creative community at large, or anyone in the NYC area generally doing awesome stuff. I am also friends with Maria's awesome friends Amrit and Julia, both of whom participate in creative communities of awesomeness and the written support of Maria my increase my social standing with them, leading to similar increased interactions, inspiration, etc. that may lead to new ideas, dealflow, etc., that ultimately may lead to financial benefit for myself sometime in the future.
Disclosure is one of those unassailable concepts like "freedom" or "openness" that is nearly impossible to argue against. In practical application, however, it starts to get a little ridiculous. I feel like it assumes that everyone is a) an island and b) only motivated by money, or perhaps sex. For example, I understand and appreciate why Kara Swisher has a 1,484 word ethics statement, but do you know the only words that count for me? These:
"I care about my reputation more than anyone and I have always sought to live up to... high standards...I know that I am asking for a large measure of trust from readers of the site, and I pledge to do everything I can to be deserving of that trust."
That's it. That could be her whole ethics statement. Trying to map out the various business relationships she has, the nature of her relationships, etc. is so complicated a web that building a clear model of her motivations--other than the motivation to just be awesome at what she does--is an exercise in futility. Any individual fact taken out of context is an incomplete picture--so I tend to rely on three beliefs:
1) Awesomeness, which includes honesty, good intention and ethical behavior, is the biggest payoff anyone could possibly be incentivized to get.
2) Most people are driven to do good. Some people are assholes. People will act according to their true nature regardless of what kind of legal structure and disclosures are setup to keep everyone on the good side.
3) If someone messes up, ethically, the internet will find you out.
So back to where I started. Maria's site is the subject of some controversy over her previous lack of disclosure of affiliate links, when she claims to eschew advertising.
Did anyone really not think she was linking to Amazon with all her book reviews? In my mind, she would have been an idiot not to, because I've probably bought at least a dozen books off of her recommendations. Why? Because her writing and curation, not her stance on advertising, has earned my trust in her taste. Her site and newsletter are treasure troves of interestingness and I look forward to seeing what she'll post everyday. I know how hard she works on it--and I hope she makes a ton of money off of it, but I know she doesn't. Content monetization through affiliate revenue is a pretty crappy business. I hope she at least pays her rent on it.
Do I think of it as advertising? Nope... and when she says she doesn't want ads on her site, I think one look at the site will make it obvious what she means. She doesn't want a bunch of ugly banners all over the place. She's created a space where people can focus on the content. She's done it successfully. However she monetizes it, I could care less. If it turned out she was secretly an Amazon employee, I wouldn't care one bit--because the content stands on its own. If it stopped being inspiring to me, I'd stop reading it and stop buying the books, plain and simple. Knowing how she gets paid is secondary to me to knowing that she does a great job inspiring people--and that's going to be her biggest payoff.
It's similar to when I discuss companies I love. I've invested in some of them because I love what they're doing. If what they were doing was useless, you'd stop paying attention to me, I'd eventually not be able to be a VC, and I would disappear into obscurity. For me to always point out how I make my money is a) incomplete, and b) doesn't really describe what motivates me at all. If I was purely motivated by money, I would have joined a hedge fund a long time ago, and I certainly wouldn't waste my time blogging for the last nine years.