|Residence||Brooklyn, New York, United States|
|Alma mater||University of Pennsylvania|
|Occupation||Writer, blogger, and critic|
Maria Popova (Bulgarian: Мария Попова) (born 1984) is a Bulgarian writer, blogger, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York. She is known for her blog BrainPickings.org, which features her writing on culture, books, and eclectic subjects off and on the Internet.
Popova’s mother and father met in Russia when they were both foreign exchange students. Maria was born in Bulgaria soon after. Popova’s mother studied library science; her father studied engineering and eventually became an Apple salesman. During her childhood, Popova’s grandmother had a collection of encyclopedias and often read to her. Because of her grandmother’s influence, Popova was exposed to a vast amount of history and other varied knowledge at a young age, which fueled her curiosity of the world. Popova had her first job when she was about 8 years old making and selling martenitsas, woven white and red thread symbolizing peace and health. In Bulgaria, there is a March 1 ritual that includes wearing martenitsas; after March is over or until the first stork is seen, the thread can be taken off and tied to a blooming tree. During the time of this festival, Popova made martenitsas and set up a lemonade stand-esque shop on the street to sell them.
Education and work
Popova graduated from the American College of Sofia in Bulgaria. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a degree in Communications, though her grandmother wanted her to get an MBA.
While at the University of Pennsylvania, Popova paid for her college tuition by working four part-time jobs on top of a full college course load: as an advertising representative for The Daily Pennsylvanian in the advertising sales department, as an intern for a local writer, as an employee for a work-study job at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on campus, and as a staff member for a small start-up advertising agency in Philadelphia.
In 2005, while Popova worked at a small ad agency, she noticed that her co-workers were circulating information within the advertising industry around the office for inspiration. However, Popova thought creativity was better sparked with exposure to information outside of the industry one was familiar with. In an effort to stir the creativity of her coworkers, Popova sent out emails to the entire office each Friday, containing five things that had nothing to do with advertising, but were meaningful, interesting, or important. Popova noticed that her co-workers were forwarding her newsletters to others. Because of the popularity of the emails, Popova felt that there was an "intellectual hunger for that sort of cross-disciplinary curiosity and self-directed learning."
Popova told her boss that she would start her own mailing for inspiration, and called this mailing Brain Pickings. Popova then enrolled in a night class to learn web design, took Brain Pickings online, and let the project grow organically.
Relocation to the U.S.
After Popova graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, she had a job, and applied for a visa to stay in the United States. However, 2007 was the year "Visagate" occurred. As a result, though Popova filed for a visa on the first day, she was in the two-thirds of the applicants who were unsuccessful. Instead, Popova received an OPT, which allows a year's worth of work with a company. In 2008, Popova attempted to apply for a visa, only to encounter the same situation. Due to Popova’s inability to secure a visa, she had to leave the United States and return to Bulgaria, where she stayed for a year. When the visa application process opened up again, Popova successfully secured a visa, moved to Los Angeles, but disliked it immensely. Popova then moved to New York in 2010, where she still resides today.
|“||If something interests me and is both timeless and timely, I write about it. Much of what is published online is content designed to be dead within hours, so I find most of my material offline. I gravitate more and more towards historical things that are somewhat obscure and yet timely in their sensibility and message.||”|
— Popova in December 2012
Popova is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. It includes several sections: About, Support, Contact, Bookshelf, Newsletter, Literary Jukebox, Sounds, and Art, and includes graphics, photographs and illustrations in addition to written content. Yellow and black are the most prominent on her blog, as those are Popova’s favorite colors. As of December 2012, the blog was receiving 1.2 million visitors a month. Among its followers are William Gibson, Josh Groban, Drew Carey, David Eagleman, Mia Farrow, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams. Anne-Marie Slaughter describes Popova's blog as "like walking into the Museum of Modern Art and having somebody give you a customized, guided tour."
Side projects and partnerships
In addition to running Brain Pickings, Popova has a number of side projects. She maintains a newsletter, a Twitter account, and has numerous Google Plus subscribers. In the summer of 2012, she created the "Literary Jukebox", a sub-site where she matches quotes from books with songs. Literary Jukebox began as personal enjoyment when Popova and her partner sent a song to each other every day. At the time, Popova was traveling, had just finished reading the second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, and found it “resonant.” Her notes from the book inspired the daily songs. Popova then matched quotes from the book with songs for a week, until she returned from traveling. Since she liked this idea, she decided to make it a continuous public project. "Music, for me, is an enormous trigger of mnemonic associations – of time, place, mood, emotion, the smell of fresh-cut grass behind your best friend’s house when you were 18 and first heard that song."
Popova also has various partnerships with prominent organizations. She is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. Additionally, Popova serves as the editorial director at the higher education social network Lore, run by Noodle. As editorial director, Popova edits Explore, a partnership site with the Noodle educational search company. Popova has also written for The Atlantic, Wired UK, GOOD Magazine, The Huffington Post, and the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Running Brain Pickings takes over 450 hours of work each month. Popova reads hundreds of pieces of content a day and anywhere between 12-15 books per week. From this, she posts the best to her blog and Twitter feed. She spends anywhere from three to eight hours writing a day, publishes three articles a day from Monday to Friday, and tweets four times per hour between 8am and 11pm Eastern with few exceptions.
All these articles are written and scheduled in advance. Popova tries not to write on Fridays, and likes to keep that day designated for sending emails and attending meetings. In terms of gathering interesting information to write about, Popova tends to do most of her long-form reading while at the gym. She skims the news while eating and listens to podcasts during her commutes.
Her daily routine includes checking her email, going through aggregator services, skims the RSS feed, pre schedules ten tweets to be published on Twitter for the mid-afternoon in the morning, then going straight to the gym which she does the elliptical while reading. She then heads back to her apartment and eats breakfast while reading more. She then goes to one of her two offices in New York City where she writes for her blog, tweets, goes through feeds, and more. When her work is done, she does not watch TV, but instead, reads the newspaper.
Content selection and output
Popova filters through the large amounts of content she reads each day through a detailed selection process. When choosing content for Brain Pickings, Popova asks herself three things:
Is it interesting enough to leave the reader with something – a thought, an idea, a question – after the immediate fulfillment of the self-contained reading or viewing experience; is it evergreen in a way that makes it just as interesting in a month or a year; am I able to provide enough additional context – historical background, related past articles, complementary reading or viewing material – or build a pattern around it to make it worth for the reader to share, link to and engage with the Brain Pickings article rather than the thing – book, TED talk, site – being featured directly.
When choosing content to publish on Brain Pickings, Popova values the richness of the content, and is not drawn towards hot links of the day, since this information can be accessed anywhere. Instead, Popova states that she aims to "share content that is meaningful. Often, it’s timeless." Popova also seeks out content that has narrative. As Popova states, "Curation is a form of pattern recognition – pieces of information or insight which over time amount to an implicit point of view." Popova publishes this information in tweet form when she does not have to add much to the content besides a few minor comments. On the other hand, Popova chooses to publish the information as blog posts when she feels she can richen and deepen the subject with historical background or additional materials.
Awards and recognitions
Maria Popova has received numerous instances of media recognition for her work. In 2012, she was named number 51 of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company Magazine. Popova was featured in 30 under 30 by Forbes as one of the most influential individuals in Media and was listed on “The 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2012 List” by Time Magazine. Popova’s work has also been spotlighted and profiled in publications such as The New York Times.
Popova has been very vocal about her dislike for traditional advertising, and has repeatedly expressed her pride on being advertising-free:
It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers. As soon as you begin to treat your stakeholder as a bargaining chip, you’re not interested in broadening their intellectual horizons or bettering their life. I don’t believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.
In February 2013, Popova received criticism on how she championed her site to be "ad-free" and a "labor of love" that requires reader donations to sustain itself, while she covertly received revenue from affiliate advertising from Amazon. Tom Bleymaier, founder of a startup in Palo Alto, California, wrote a post on an anonymous Tumblr blog calling Popova out for her actions. Using his own calculations, Bleymaier extrapolated that Popova could make anywhere between $240,000 and $432,000 a year with these affiliate advertisements.
This received much media attention from sources such as Reuters and PandoDaily weighed in. Popova herself responded to the Reuters article written by Felix Salmon in an email where she addressed factual errors concerning the amount of income from the affiliate advertisements mentioned in the Reuters article.
This incident has sparked a more general debate on the Internet about whether or not affiliate advertisements are "sneaky" or "deceptive". Popova has since updated her donation page, in small letters at the bottom of the page, far removed from the rest of the main text, on Brain Pickings to acknowledge the fact that she receives income from affiliate advertisements.
In 2012, Popova created the Curator's Code, a project by Popova with input from designer Kelli Anderson. The Curator’s Code is a code of conduct for curators on the web to use. This proposed method is an attempt to codify source attribution on the internet to ensure that the intellectual labor of information discovery is honored. Under the code, the "via" symbol indicates direct discovery, where the "hat tip" symbol indicates an indirect link of discovery.
The Curator's Code was controversial, and received mixed responses. The announcement of this project elicited feedback from people who "worry about the meaning of curation". In a blog post responding to the Curator’s Code, Marco Arment stated that "codifying 'via' links with confusing symbols is solving the wrong problem". Most criticism of The Curator’s Code voiced uncertainty about the Curator’s Code’s ability to solve the problems of online attribution. A few critics argued that the problems of online attribution are not due to a lack of codified syntax, but rather due to the "economics and realities of online publishing".
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