Trying to understand The Curator’s Code’s approach to attributing discovery

Yesterday one of my favourite bloggers/tweeters/curators Maria Popova announced a new initiative called The Curator’s Code as a method to standardise the way in which we attribute discoveries made when we re-distribute via the usual channels of twitter and blogs.

The code proposes the use of two shorthand codes:

ᔥ – indicates a via: a direct link of discovery

↬ – indicates a hat-tip: an indirect link of discovery

There are a few things I’d like to discuss first before trying to ascertain whether this is a good idea.

Missing attribution versus missing attribution

Missing attributions–especially from a deluge of a thousand Tumblr accounts–really frustrates me. A beautiful image showcasing a great product or piece of graphic design is often not accompanied by a direct link to the creator/studio/company/retailer that might want to sell or promote it to you. A post featuring an image like this is of zero worth to the individual who created it, but potentially worth a great deal of money to the publisher if they are yielding some ad revenue.

This mis-attribution angers me. I’m looking at you, Convoy. (But admittedly he’s yielding no cash, just Tumblr followers.)

The other type of missing attribution is where party A has found and shared a link, which party B subsequently shares. I share a lot of links on Twitter and here on my blog. Of course I try to do a via or ~ (I’ll come onto the nomenclature later) but sometimes I forget who I found it from due to the very nature of the sands of internet time.

I hope the person who found the link via someone else via an infinite number of other people doesn’t mind, but I have absolutely no idea. Of course, I have been on the other side. I run a fairly popular web design blog called siteInspire where I post sites I stumble across which I love. I then see people share the sites’ URLs without attribution to siteInspire.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t give a damn about not being attributed.

Sure: a ‘via @siteinspire’ may mean one extra follower, but the point is the great piece of design was shared amongst our community; it doesn’t matter if I’m the person who found it first. Hell - I have seen entire blogs that repost siteInspire’s entire canon of content. I couldn’t care less–it just means I’m doing something right.

My point is, the former type of mis-attribution sucks to heck; the latter, we really need to get over, and just see the internet as a means by which to spread goodness freely.

What is a curator, anyway?

A curator used to mean someone who made specific decisions about which things to include in a specific collection in a museum.

I can’t think of anything I am less. At the very basic level, I’m a guy with a few blogs and a Twitter account, so I’m certainly not going to start making decisions about what to include in any upcoming exhibition at The British Museum.

I am, however, a voracious consumer of the internet and all the glorious nuggets within it. All I care about is finding cool stuff, sharing it, and hoping others find it as cool as I did (with varying results). Does that make me a curator? And as such, does that mean I am the audience of The Curator’s Code? I think no to the former, and no to the latter, which makes me confused about the whole thing. On @siteinspire I have just changed my bio to read “picked by @howells” not “curated by @howells”. I thought I was a curator, but because the term has suddenly turned quite mainstream and into something I don’t feel it is, now I’m unsure.

Let’s talk about process

To include the above symbols in this post, I had to visit The Curator’s Code website and cut and paste them. That will be the last time I will do that.

I know there is a bookmarklet to help me find the UTF8 symbol, but I have no fewer than 15 bookmarklets on Chrome that have me covered for every startup I could care to be involved with, and frankly that’s too many. If I can’t reach those symbols with some simple keystrokes, I won’t use them.

But this made me wonder, what is wrong with the conventions that have already (almost) been standardised?

Why is ᔥ superior to a ~? A tilde is being used by a huge number of people I follow to attribute a via. There may be a technical reason but right now I’m missing it.

I haven’t seen “hat-tip” used by many people I follow but I know what it means, so maybe subconsciously I have. My question here is what is the difference between a via and hat-tip? If we’re agreed that discovery if a factor of a chain of interactions between sharing people, then surely your share is the next link in a chain. I’d hazard it’s entirely impossible to trace the history of discover across platforms and blogging-islands, so I’m not sure an effort to try is worth a huge amount. Further I’d hope that all that is required is a visit to via source to discover the hat-tip source.

A final point I want to make about hat-tips is hat it is a very colloquial and possibly non-transferrable across boundaries. Via is a universal term in whatever language that makes more sense to a greater many.

So what do I think of The Curator’s Code?

I love the content that Maria shares along with a tiny handful of other folk I follow (Jason Kottke, Michael Surtees, Jason Cotterell, and others on my linky list). However I never saw these guys as curators: they’re just keen to share really great stuff, without demanding a title.

And these guys almost always share content using via or ~. That’s great, but in my mind not truly necessary. Their motivations are about disseminating great content without taking the credit for something that–at the end of the day–they didn’t create.

That said I would hate to think that someone I follow–who is therefore someone I respect–is offended by a mis-attribution of a resource so for that reason I’m in favour of the Code. But the actual process for doing this has to be be defined in the same way the @ symbol was defined by users of Twitter; organically and simply. If someone doesn’t want to use via, ~, HT (hat-tip) they won’t use ᔥ or ↬ either.

I really want to understand this initiative more so I welcome comments and feedback.

Update 1 – Lawrence in the comments below brings up an important point about the website. A simple idea demands a very simple message.

Update 2Matt Langer writes a criticism of the use of the term “curator” full stop. He picks up on some very important points not touched on here.

Update 3Marco Arment writes another excellent post, about this topic as does Michael Surtees as mentioned in my post.

Update 4 – take a look at this considered article by Rob at It’s Nice That, and Ben Stott just wrote a superb comment here:

What we are doing is sharing – posting, linking and blogging somebody else’s hard work. It is not our content, we didn’t create it, we don’t own it and we certainly don’t have any rights over it just because we think we found it first. We are not 5 year olds in the playground, it’s not finders keepers.

Comments — 17

Nikki Sylianteng on March 11 — 5:53 am #

I think you just put into words the feelings I had about “hat tip”.

Simon Saint on March 11 — 1:14 pm #

What about the other side of the equation? While you might not be fussed about getting credit for the curation, it might be really helpful for someone who discovers the attribution to find a “curator” with similar taste that they can come back to.

I totally agree though that the new unicode characters are really going to limit useage, we played around with it last night and couldn’t get the symbols into a tweet, even with the bookmarklet. By then it had basically gotten too hard…

Lawrence Brown on March 11 — 1:39 pm #

Good idea. The site explaining the idea is too stylised and hard to read, this barrier to entry will stop people understanding what it is and actually using it.

The whole thing needs to be diluted a lot more so the idea is simple, well packaged and is ultimately not that different from crediting sources in essays.

This aside, some platforms such as tumblr still feel like a scrapbook platform and I think the majority of the content will ultimately be published uncredited regardless of the launch of a symbol.

Daniel Howells on March 11 — 3:07 pm #

@Simon true. The thing is I only discovered the likes of @brainpicker after seeing a lot of “via’s” and RTs so really the system works as it is without a new convention in place.

@Lawrence good point. I had that in the back of my mind but didn’t want to bring it up here but it is an important point.

Katie on March 11 — 5:50 pm #

This kinda smacks of creating a solution for a non-existent problem, or at least missing the crux - of course lack of attribution is an annoying issue but I don’t think a squiggle that no-one outside of a small circle will understand is the solution when the word ‘via’ or just a plain old linkback url perfectly suffices. The issue is that people don’t care/don’t see the value in attribution, not that they don’t know how to do it and need to be told to use an odd symbol.

Symbols are only really useful on Twitter where letter-count is limited, and the tilde notation seems to be taking hold there already. Making it a unicode symbol is adding a layer of complexity that just isn’t needed. And I agree the web design does the cause no favours.

swissmiss on March 11 — 5:56 pm #


I appreciate your thoughtful post. I seriously don’t care if people start using Maria’s proposed attribution symbols or via/HT or any other form as long as people DO attribute. I am just so damn excited that people are giving the concept of attribution some thought.

I find it tremendously valuable if I see where some of my favorite bloggers/thinkers get their information from by citing their sources. It’s one of my favorite ways of discovering new content streams.

I have a hard time believing that you don’t care at all if a site entirely rips of all your findings.

Waving from Brooklyn Tina

Daniel Howells on March 11 — 6:50 pm #

@Tina - true, I should stress that I do think it’s great when people to attribute, and I raise that point towards the end (I should add that these are guys I follow on Twitter mainly: I think good quality bloggers such as yourself almost always attribute anyway). I guess my point is that at first glance – and I’m still trying to understand it properly – it seems like a layer of complexity/process on top of something that people who will attribute, will do anyway.

And regarding my findings - I really don’t mind at all! It happens all the time. Ultimately siteInspire is my own personal resource so I’m just thankful/lucky that other people like to spend time using it, and are sharing what I consider to be good stuff.

(That said, I make next to zero cash through the site - if it were a commercial operation I’d be more bothered: I didn’t raise that in this post and perhaps that is an important distinction.)

Tom Muller on March 11 — 7:16 pm #

Interesting idea, even though attribution does happen already in some ways — but its nice to see people making a conscious effort to highlight the fact that its important to do in the first place. Those unicode characters are pretty bad though for a variety of reasons. Thing is that things like a ~ or “via” grew organically without anyone declaring it as official, and thats the key thing that is missing here.

Miss Cellania on March 12 — 2:30 pm #

Since grade school, I’ve always been told to cite my sources. It keeps you out of trouble and provides extra value to the reader, especially since internet links make further exploration so easy. Besides, I would never have gained any blogging traction at all if it were for h/t, vias, or link love. So I made it a habit, then a personal code, to always cite the original creator if at all possible and where I personally found it. The rest of the chain… well, I follow it as far as necessary to find the origin, and if someone wants to follow it, they can.

Iain Claridge on March 13 — 12:25 am #

Whilst at first my thoughts about the Curator’s Code were positive, on reflection I am not sure I am personally comfortable with the notion of formalising what amounts to simply decent good manners into some kind of code involving symbols and secret handshakes. It all seems unnecessarily overcomplicated. Furthermore, it doesn’t exactly “oil the wheels” of attribution, having to fiddle about placing an obscure unicode character, that you can’t guarantee will be displayed properly, only to confuse most readers with what is an unfamiliar symbol. What’s wrong with just typing in a good old “via” and be done with it. The linking of the code characters to the Curator’s Code website is a real no-no too, raising the potential for further confusion when the reader mis-hits what he thinks is a link to the source only to end up on the Curators Code website. In summary, I am behind the Curator’s Code in terms of the message, I just think the method leaves a lot to be desired.

Noah Collins on March 13 — 6:01 am #

I find myself expressing gratitude for Maria’s work on a routine basis, and I think the curator’s code is already successful in the sense that it’s kicked off some interesting dialogue around the web.

The Unicode characters are a mixed bag, though. Wouldn’t the proposed “hat tip” character be pointing backward for anyone using a right-to-left language?

James Warfield on March 13 — 5:10 pm #

The term ‘curator’ seems a bit archaic. The internet isn’t a fixed wall space governed by a single person. It’s a moving feast contributed to by many hands and minds.

It’s also a little arrogant and self important. I’ve been accused of not attributing a link by someone (I hadn’t even seen it via that person). I thought it was a bit petty at the time. I got over it.

Unless you were asked directly by the originator of a piece of content to distribute or display it, chances are you saw it off someone who saw it off someone else.

Ben Stott on March 14 — 12:59 am #

In internet time I’m monumentally late to this. What can I say, I had a busy couple of days. Nevertheless the discussion really intrigues me so I’m going to throw my piece into the hat.

Luckily I don’t have to start by debating the grandiose use of the term ‘curator’, thankfully this has already been eloquently tackled by a number of other people.

So, unless I am much mistaken what we are talking about here is attributing the discovery of content, or even just the links to content, not the actual content. And this is what perplexes me. The content in question is the end product of somebody else’s endeavor, and by very nature of where it exists, it’s accessible to pretty much everyone on the planet.

What we are doing is sharing – posting, linking and blogging somebody else’s hard work. It is not our content, we didn’t create it, we don’t own it and we certainly don’t have any rights over it just because we think we found it first. We are not 5 year olds in the playground, it’s not finders keepers.

Now of course there are people and organisations who make a living or reputation out of collecting and disseminating content to the rest of us and I thank them for it, I check their sites daily and I’m inspired and better informed for it. In general these are the same people who extol the virtues of the internet, it’s non-centralisation, openness and healthy culture of knowledge sharing and access to information. So it seems a little odd that they appear to want to be the arbiters of the links to other peoples content that they so willingly choose to share themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, giving credit, or if you like attribution, to the source of anything that you wish to share or reference but did not actually create or invent yourself is just plain good manners, anybody doing otherwise deserves to be derided in some form or other.

Daniel Howells on March 14 — 9:44 am #

What a superb selection of comments from very handsome and pretty people.

@Ben I think you just knocked it out the park - this captures a lot of what I tried to say far more succinctly.

James Greenfield on March 14 — 4:13 pm #

+1 to Ben’s comment. I was so perplexed at the attention it was getting as a subject matter I basically ignored it. The ‘internet’ doesn’t half focus on the wrong things at times.

Sarah on March 14 — 4:25 pm #

What Ben said. Spot on.

Mark Boyce on March 15 — 10:03 pm #

Spot on @Ben… I totally agree.


I was thinking that maybe if this initiative was named the ‘Source Code’ it might have made more sense. As personally, I’d like to know who the creator(s) of the content were, not who the so called curator(s) were…

~ point me to the source please.

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