On Tip Jars and Transparency

Show me the money..........

I write for a living. I’ve freelanced here and there, but I’ve made the decision in recent years to focus my efforts on developing my own websites, particularly Hack Education, rather than write for someone else elsewhere.

As such I’ve modeled much of what I do here on successful “indie” bloggers like Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova, whose smart and interesting “curated” links I enjoy. I’ve gone so far as to borrow some of the verbiage from her site to remind my readers here that I’ve opted not to have advertisers or sponsors and to point them instead to the “donate” button.

Brain Pickings and Affiliate Marketings

There have been some grumblings in the past few months about the ways in which Popova funds her site. The site itself would seem pretty clear about how she does so: through donations and subscriptions from readers.

“Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit, between the site, the email newsletter, and Twitter. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner.”

But some have charged that Popova hasn’t been fully forthcoming about her money-making: that she also operates several spammy sites (to boost her SEO perhaps?) and, more importantly, that she fails to disclose that links on her site (and Tweets, newsletter, and Pinterest accounts) are affiliate marketing.

A blog post on Tumblr (a blog, it should be noted, created solely to call out Popova’s purported misdeeds) runs some numbers and suggests that the Amazon affiliate marketing could be netting Popova between $240,000 and $430,000 per year and estimates that she’s also receiving between $50,000 and $100,000 a year from donations.

Responding via email to Reuters’ Felix Salmon who wrote about the accusations, Popova says that “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!”

But I’m not sure that the problem here is so much the amount of money that Popova makes through Amazon affiliate marketing; it’s that this particular money-making effort isn’t fully disclosed to the Brain Pickings’ readership. And as such, then, the tip jar on her website seems like a less-than-forthcoming request that folks help support her work.

(Since I started writing this post, Popova has added a note on her donation page, notifying readers about the affiliate links.)

Ad-Free Blogonomics

I’ve opted to eschew ads and sponsorship deals and affiliate marketing links on Hack Education for a number of reasons.

I really loathe online ads, truth be told, and use all the ad-blocking tools at my browser’s disposal so as to avoid them. I find them disruptive and distracting when I try to read. And I’m more than a little bit bitter, thanks to time spent in the trenches of tech blogging, about the way in which advertising revenues lead some publications to chase page-views with link-bait headlines, slide-shows, and so on.

As I write primarily about education technology, I’m wary too of the kinds of ads that get served up, via Google’s AdSense for example, in conjunction with edu-related content. Often these are ads for for-profit schools at both the K–12 and university level. Indeed, the University of Phoenix is Google’s biggest advertiser, spending almost $200,000 a day on AdWords according to a recent report. I want nothing to do with those predatory marketing campaigns.

I want nothing to do with sponsored content (See: The Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial). I want nothing to do with investor-funded-technology journalism. There’s plenty of all that out there already for those that don’t mind as much as I do.

Indie Disclosures

I take very seriously the responsibility and the privilege I have working as an education writer. I try to do so with integrity.

I disclose when I’ve had my travel paid to events that I speak at or that I cover, for example. I disclose when I am making money working on particular research and writing projects. I disclose when I’ve been given for free a piece of software or hardware to review. (Or at least, I try to remember to disclose these things. Sometimes I forget to do so when I first hit “publish.”) I also maintain a disclosure page on this blog where I list all my financial ties — and my education ties too, as I think they’re relevant.

I disclose because it’s the law. I disclose because it’s the right thing to do. If I want my readers to trust me — to read my work, sure, but to also chip in to support it — then transparency and honesty are crucial.

But I do wonder: are there limits to the expectations for “full disclosure”? Are these expectations different for indie folks like myself than for writers (and artists and musicians and so on) that work for major publications (and record labels and the like)? What's the divide between our personal and professional lives? Is it as clear-cut for us? (I’m thinking here of those who’ve scoffed at the amount of time that Popova says it takes her to curate links for Brain Pickings — 450 hours per month — and the realization that I too spend almost every waking hour researching and writing and sharing content related to Hack Education.) What are the drawbacks to demanding this sort of radical transparency (are there any?), and/or who exactly do we expect this from? Is the pushback against Popova just a matter of principle? Or is it a matter of how successful she's become? In other words, do we simply want a disclosure? Or do we want to know the dollar figures?

Image credits: Bela Sivakumar


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