“Brain Pickings” Author Runs An “Ad-Free” Site, Except Not

Brain Pickings “curator” Maria Popova supposedly finances her site via donations and subscriptions, claiming to refuse advertising because she doesn’t “believe in this model of making people into currency”.

Evidently nobody told Maria that littering your posts with affiliate links is virtually the same thing as plastering ads all over your site. She supposedly doesn’t disclose that she uses affiliate links because she doesn’t consider them “advertising”, even though as On Advertising points out, “[I]n every description of the service, Amazon calls the revenue made by partner websites ‘advertising fees’”.

It seems rather hypocritical of Maria to repeatedly shame people for not having stricter ethics regarding their revenue generating tactics when, in the words of my source, she herself is “making bank from Amazon affiliate links while 1) not disclosing that she has them, 2) claiming the site is ad-free, and 3) asking for donations from readers because the site is ad-free”.

I understand we all gotta make a buck. But if you’re going to promote yourself as some holier-than-thou, so-above-all-that intellectual antidote to an SEO and advertising obsessed world you might want to make sure your own disclosure ethics are above reproach.

  1. avatar silveroak

    Tis a little thick headed, me thinks.

  2. avatar "Pilot" is the new "keynote"

    Failure to disclose affiliate links is dishonest; having ads is annoying but up-front. I’m so sick of this failure to disclose on blogs. Is the new rule that if everyone else is being a secret shill, it’s okay to do it?

    • avatar Crapspotter

      The only ads that are really annoying are the in-your-face ones that actually disrupt your reading. I find it odd that someone who doesn’t want to annoy readers with ads would rather ask them for a handout. I’d rather companies pay for the blogger to blog than me!

  3. avatar Sister Friend

    She lost me when she told me that her site was meant to, “…empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful.” Impactful fail.

    As soon as a site brags about not having ads, I am as unimpressed as I am with sites that have ads. To me, they are the internet version of douchebags that brag about not having a television as a means of demonstrating how intellectually better they are than the rest of us.

    • avatar mmhmm

      Is ‘combinatorial’ even a real word? My spell check wants to make it ‘recombination’.

    • avatar cinephile

      “To me, they are the internet version of douchebags that brag about not having a television as a means of demonstrating how intellectually better they are than the rest of us.”

      Those doucebags are usually the same ones who watch tv on Netflix and Hulu on their computers, but think that just not having a television means they don’t technically watch tv…

    • It made me think of this.

  4. avatar KERFETUS

    This chick is such a pain in the ass. Everyone loves her omginteresting twee links to big thinkers, but I don’t get why she’s some hipster authority on why Joan Didion is cool (fucking duh) or why posting links to TED is treated like a public service. It’s curated spam at best.

  5. avatar Catullus

    I made a donation to her and now I’m sorry I did. I also expected some sort of acknowledgment for doing so; maybe not a personal note (but on the other hand, I doubt she gets THAT many donations) but even some sort of autoreply would have been nice. Now I feel used and abused because I fell for her “story” about being ad-free. Ugh.

    • avatar Cat Ass Trophy

      Do not beat yourself up too hard. I donated to a site I really believed in and the owner pocketed every cent of the tens of thousands she received. I felt like a fucking asshole.

  6. avatar o_O

    The word : THIS : “empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful” just did me in. Come on now! Her ability to claim advertising is just WRONG. COME ON now – advertising as she has is so HACK! May she reap what she sows. NUFF SAID! BONG!

  7. avatar DoloresManhattan

    Sweet Jeebus. For whatever reason this pushed me from lurker of over a year to poster. I found Brain Pickings via ‘Angry Chicken which was always SOMI for me, but I am done.
    Side note- thanks for being such a sharp funny smart group of folks…it’s the only regular stop for me now…as for most ladyblogging- I am still licking my wounds from the High School cafeteria thank you very much, so I gave up my daily dose of hypocrisy, drama and humblebrag once I found GOMI….um, carryon then….

    • Welcome!! Glad you finally decided to join in :D

    • avatar Catullus

      Funny, this brought me out of lurker status into first-time poster, too! I really felt that Brain Pickings was one of the few genuine sites, something that really was loftier than most. I wanted to believe….So, I’m doubly pissed that it was all a facade. This one really hurt.

      • avatar DoubleEntendre

        To DM and Catullus..


      • avatar Lisse

        +1. It looked legit to me when I first came across it half a year ago. I’m le sad.

  8. avatar Snarkleberry Pie

    I’m probably an asshole for saying this, but did people really not realize that they were affiliate links? Because when you hover over an affiliate link, you can see the tracking code right in it. There’s no way to disguise an affiliate link, so they’re not really hidden. So this is stupid, but it shouldn’t be shocking to her regular readers.

    • You’d be surprised how many people don’t notice. That’s why they’re supposed to be required to disclose it.

      • avatar KatieK

        I did not know what an affiliate link was before GOMI. I noticed some bloggers links would show up as bit.yl/something or rstyle/something or shopstyle/something, but I thought those were all services similar to tinyurl just to make long links look cleaner. It does annoy me now that bloggers are not more clear about this.

        • I honestly do wonder how many people understand what affiliate/referral links are, and maybe that’s why they don’t realize bloggers make money off of them. I know a few people who thought they were just for tracking traffic flow so bloggers could see what readers liked, and had no idea their beloved blogger was making money from them because the blogger never disclosed that little fact.

    • avatar Tom Servo

      You know, I am so dumb.

      I’ve been a reader of Maria’s for a long time, knew that she solicited donations touting Brain Pickings as an ad-free site, realized that the links were affiliate links, AND STILL: la dee dah, nothing to see here, didn’t catch how questionable this is AT ALL. I guess my WTF detector is broken, which is why I need GOMI; for my own protection, because that’s how dense I am.

      Somebody please come and put plastic plugs on my electrical sockets for me. And tell me not to eat the silica packets that came with my new shoes.

    • avatar Sweet Cheeks

      There’s a WordPress Plugin called, I think, Affiliate Ninja. It goes through every link you’ve ever published and tries to match it to your affiliate accounts – you put in your account info for Amazon, Commission Junction, Share a Sale, whatever. It also gives you a personalized URL that changes the long affiliate link code to something generic.

  9. avatar thefuck?

    I visited her site once or twice and decided it was just waaaaay too fucking smug for me to handle.

    Kudos to you for this and similar posts, partypants. GOMI is one of my guilty pleasures, but it’s also a damn smart sit, and a fine place to learn about what’s up and down with the internetz.

  10. avatar Too_cool_to_care

    Hypocrisy at its best!

  11. avatar Fat Freddys Cat

    Meh. I love Brain Pickings. Call me in denial if you will, but I’ve clicked the Amazon links in her posts before and bought books….and never considered it in violation of her no advertising policy. I’ve appreciated the convenience.

    I’m still puzzled by comments about smugness…I’ve always found her work fun and entertaining with some nice surprises. Off beat. In a good way. If she gets revenue off the book purchases I make via her site, bravo for her. Frankly I don’t consider it advertising either.

    And no she’s neither my wife, mother or sister.

    • avatar DoubleEntendre


    • avatar MEP

      You don’t consider it advertising for her to recommend that you read a book, and then get paid when you buy it?? I don’t have a beef with her doing that, at all, but why is she saying she doesn’t have ads — and even worse, shilling for donations, which to me implies she’s not receiving any other revenue from the site?

    • avatar thefuck?

      I find the entire blog to be marred by a palpable level of pretention. Her use of lofty language is eye-roll inducing, at least for me: this is a blog about “interestingness,” “combinatorial” endeavors, and “curation.” Give me a break. She gets access to the knowledge of people before her, comes to understand something about it herself, and puts it together/presents it in a way that’s at best only mildly different than the way other people have done it in the past. These activities are known as research and essay-writing, and people have been engaging in them for centuries now, without the need to come up with special names for them to make them seem new and profitable. She comes across to me as a classic dilettante, only with a computer and web space and an unfortunately over-inflated sense of importance. I’m not saying she’s not smart, and I’m not saying that learning and sharing knowledge aren’t worthwhile endeavors (I am a PhD student in the humanities in 21st century America, for crying out loud), but I will argue to the very end that the site is incredibly pretentious.

      And I know that I would be incredibly disappointed were I to have contributed to her blog, only to find out that she’s been pulling one over on her readers re: advertising and revenue sources.

      • avatar areyouforreal

        “…this is a blog about “interestingness,” “combinatorial” endeavors, and “curation.” Give me a break. She gets access to the knowledge of people before her, comes to understand something about it herself, and puts it together/presents it in a way that’s at best only mildly different than the way other people have done it in the past.”

        …you do realize that’s what curating is, right? Collecting things (words, knowledge, wisdom, whatever) and then putting them together and presenting them? C’mon, PhD student in the humanities in 21st century America, you can do better than that.

        This is my first time visiting this site, and it’ll be my last. I can see validity in the point of view of people giving mommy/fashion/diy bloggers shit, even though I think the shit-giving is pointless. But why the heck are people being such jerks about Brain Pickings? Maria Popova is not smug. Using big words and discussing smart, literary content doesn’t make a person pompous, stuck up, pretentious, etc. etc. It means they enjoy reading and learning and then applying the things that they learn to real world situations, like for instance, a blog for sharing knowledge. Big words are words too, you know. People should be allowed to use them freely without getting anonymously chewed out by weirdly angry randos on the internet. This is such a silly, immature site. This is the kind of stuff I wrote about in my online journal when I was a needlessly angry, emo 15-year-old girl. Did you people never graduate from high school? Excuse me while I go find better things to do with my time…like learn things on Brain Pickings. Adios.

    • avatar Series of Tubes

      One of my first reads in the morning and last at night. She curates a great mix of things I like and things I would never otherwise stumble across. She does the job of a general interest features editor with a broad focus. I don’t have time to read all the feeds she reads to extract the things she highlights, and that is why she is awesome to me, like any good editor.

      A link from a site to a commerce site is often a revenue generating affiliate link. Also, growunups have sex, there is no tooth fairy, Santa Claus is a lie, and decaf isn’t caffeine free.

      Dumb thing to target.

  12. avatar boggymommer

    Uh, aside from the hypocrisy, it’s an FTC violation and she can be fined. Whether it bothers you or not, it’s illegal.

    • For me it’s this statement: “Keeping it all ad-free — which is important to me and, I believe, to you — means it’s subsidized by the generous support of readers like you.” It implies that her only revenue from the site is donations and subscriptions from readers, when that is clearly NOT the case. Whether someone personally considers affiliate links “advertising” or not, that statement is at the least incredibly misleading, at most flat out deceptive in my opinion.

  13. avatar DoubleEntendre

    Not sure if illegal unless she’s cloaking or shortening the links–that’s against Amazon’s TOS–but I don’t see that she is. I read/participate on sites that don’t disclose their AL’s but they’re not trolling for donations either (Pinterest, for example). When I read BP’s plea, the implication is clear (like PP said) that only donations and subs are a source of revenue and we’re to infer just that. It IS in violation of SEC and FTC guidelines, but they don’t monitor blogs.

    Full disclosure is the high road, people get pitchfork-ragey when money is involved and they feel duped.

    • LOL it was spam, deleted it.

    • avatar S

      I must have missed something. If the FTC is not policing bloggers’ compliance to endorsement guides, what’s the point in having them?

      Dooce doesn’t declare that the links she provides are affiliate links. KERF doesn’t either (well, she does in the side-bar of her site, but not within blog posts). I wonder how many people end up clicking on those links, not realising they are earning those particular bloggers some ka$hmoney?

      • avatar Brutus

        The blogger at Love & Hisses, a cat fostering blog, does the same thing, not declaring that her links are giving her money. It bothers me. I used to think anything from the links would go to the agency she fosters for, but I’m not sure – she always says on donations, contests, raffles, stuff like that, that all money will go to the shelter, but nothing on the links. The link is for the blog of her husband who is an asshole so I take it out anyway so I can’t complain but I guess I’m complaining. She’s a very nice lady but i don’t like that about her blog.

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