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Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. Your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. Head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

A subtle shift occurred on the Internet recently. Maria Popova unveiled at South by Southwest a project she’s been working on for the last year called the Curator’s Code. Popova—a serial aggregator on her site and on Twitter—is hoping to encourage content aggregators to give a little back to the original source through links that trace the origin of the work. The site isn’t much—it’s a plea for transparency coupled with a few tools to facilitate citations—but Popova’s idea has made a palpable splash.

The Curator’s Code is only a start, but I’m happy it’s out there for two reasons. One, I’m a writer. I want my work to be spread as far and wide as possible, but I’d also like to be noted as the original source. And two, I started dabbling in aggregation—sharing, really—two months ago when I launched the Linked List. Before that, I thought a lot about what it means to be a responsible and ethical aggregator. In the process, I developed my own code of conduct which I think does more to respect original content than the Curator’s Code.

The entire point of the Linked List is to send people out to other sites. That’s it, really. I view the Linked List as a themed Twitter account without the character limit. If you think that way, everything else follows naturally: Don’t copy too much of the original article. Don’t summarize it, either. Get people to click the link. Even the design I chose for the Linked List emphasizes outbound traffic. The headline—often the most visible link in the post—is a link to the article itself. The permalink to my post—the infinity symbol just to the right of the headline—is almost an afterthought. Everything about the Linked List is meant to send you away from Per Square Mile. (Just don’t forget to come back!)

Oh, and there’s one more principle I follow—don’t be a dick. When I’m crafting a Linked List post, I think to myself, Would I be OK with my work being shared in this way?

That’s an easy question for me to answer. I’m a writer, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of some, ahem, aggressive aggregation. Take my article on income inequality in the Roman Empire. Russia Today repackaged it without a link (an oversight they later corrected). Business Insider and the Huffington Post excerpted a small paragraph and summarized most of the rest. I have no idea how much traffic they got from their versions, but I do know that among the three of them I received well under 1,000 hits.

Fortunately, not all aggregators are created equal. From that same post, Matthew Yglesias on his blog at Slate pulled one factoid from my article, added a quick take, and sent me over 1,000 visitors. On other posts, the editors at Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish have sent me a few thousand readers by tastefully excerpting. And I have great respect for John Pavlus: Where Gizmodo and Business Insider were happy to copy and post one of my infographics—sending me around 1 percent or less of the traffic their posts received—John not only asked permission to use the image for a post at Fast.Co Design, but he interviewed me for his piece.

It would be great if “overzealous aggregation” meant the sort of effort that John put into his post, but it doesn’t. The Curator’s Code is a first step, but it’s not a complete solution—it would be easy to use the “via” and “heard through” links as a license to over-aggregate.

I signed a pledge to honor the Curator’s Code, but I’m also sticking to the principles I outlined above. They may not be perfect and they may not work for everyone, but I think they’re good signposts for when I’m working on the Linked List.

What do you think? Do Linked List entries catch your attention enough to send you away (and then hopefully return)? Am I striking the right balance between aggregation and original content? Does the Curator’s Code go far enough? Or do my principles do more to respect original content?

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Scaling up

Links

Note to WordPress.com followers: Per Square Mile has moved to a private host. This means your old WordPress.com follows and email subscriptions won’t work as WordPress will not share that information. The URL remains the same, but be sure to head over to the new Per Square Mile for the latest.

Landscape ecologists commonly cite the need to “scale up” in the course of their research. It’s a bit of jargon that can be loosely defined as the need to incorporate more information, to address the issue with a broader scope. That’s what I’m doing with Per Square Mile.

You may have noticed a few changes to the site since your last visit. The graphic that sprawls across the top of the page is a big bluer, a bit bolder. The layout is also simplified, clearing away the last vestiges of clutter from the old page. But those subtle differences hide myriad modifications under the hood.

For every interesting story I unearth, there are many more being told across the web. The changes I’ve made to Per Square Mile will let me share with you that which I find most compelling, most insightful, or most provocative. I’ll add my two cents and send you on to read for yourself. It’s a model that was originally proposed for blogs but has somewhat been lost. There are a few who hew to the original “weblog” concept—chief among them is John Gruber, who writes the brilliant tech site Daring Fireball and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for inspiring these changes. Like Gruber, I’ll be collectively calling these posts my Linked List.

How the Linked List works is straightforward. The title is a link to an article on another site. Below is the text of the post. Sometimes I will include an excerpt from the linked page, sometimes I’ll include my own take on the issue, and sometimes I’ll post both. Next to the title is the symbol for infinity, which is the permanent link. Click on that and you will be taken to the single-page view of that Linked List post, which you can then bookmark or share.

The hitch to the Linked List is it will only be available on the site, at least for the time being. So be sure to drop by for the latest updates. And in addition to the Linked List, all the stuff you’ve come to love about Per Square Mile—articles, essays, maps, infographics—isn’t going anywhere. I’m taking that body of work and scaling up.

Photo by BotheredByBees.

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One year

Birthday candles

One year ago today, I made public a concept I had been kicking around for a while. I had been intensely interested in density for years, and the idea was to bring those musings together under one roof. The result was Per Square Mile, and in the last year, it’s become an expository collection of science writing, essays, maps, and illustrations—a close reading of a broad topic.

When I began Per Square Mile, I wasn’t exactly sure where it would take me. I had written a couple of articles in advance of the first publication, but didn’t have much else. For me, it was a bit of a leap. Every time I pressed “publish”, I wondered what would come next. I was constantly living in fear of running out of ideas.

Happily, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Since January 3, 2011, I’ve published 72 articles (not including this one). Averaged out, that’s 1.4 posts per week. Not bad, considering that I squeeze my many hours of research and writing into the scarce time after work. But despite my efforts, I don’t think Per Square Mile has reached its potential yet. That’s why I’ve been hard at work on new features I hope to roll out in the coming weeks and months. Don’t worry—I’ll continue sifting through scientific papers, penning essays, whipping up maps, and drafting illustrations, but I also hope to bring you even more density-related miscellanea.

In the meantime, feel free to peruse some of my favorites. I don’t post pieces with which I’m not happy (my hard drive has a graveyard of false starts and dead ends), but like most people, there are some for which my heart swells more than others. Here they are, listed chronologically:

I don’t plan on marking occasions like this often (celebrating anniversaries is somewhat cheesy, celebrating the anniversary of a blog even more so), but I did want to thank everyone who has been reading. No matter how you found Per Square Mile, I’m glad you’re here.

Photo by Aih.

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Dissecting density

Salzachtal

Per Square Mile is a blog about density. It’s about what happens when people live like packed sardines. It’s also about what happens when people live so far apart they can go days without seeing another soul. It’s about living amongst trees and prairies and living in places miles away from them. It’s about the trees and the prairies, too. And lakes and streams and animals and insects. In short, this is a blog about density of all types.

I started thinking about density in earnest a little over six years ago when I moved to San Francisco from St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul itself was a big leap from my college days (small-town Minnesota) and my childhood (small-town Wisconsin), but it didn’t compare to what San Francisco held in store. At 17,323 people per square mile, bodies seemed to be crawling over each other. I couldn’t step foot outside of my apartment without seeing another person. That had never happened to me before, and it had a profound impact on the way I think about space.

Since then, I’ve pored over density figures for the places I’ve lived or considered living. Personal sanity is only a part of this obsession; environmental awareness is another. I moved to San Francisco for graduate school, specifically a PhD in environmental science. The coincidence of my study of landscape ecology and the shock of high-density living ended up being a happy one—the PhD process gave me the framework and background to thoughtfully consider my environs.

For years I have been debating with myself about the benefits of small town life—slower pace, open spaces, nearby wilderness—and the things I admire about big cities—mass transit, energy efficiency, and intellectual vibrancy. Up until now, these debates have been little more than daydreams and thought exercises. But with this here fancy blog, I intend to explore density more fully, both scientifically and philosophically. I probably won’t cover all there is to know about cities, towns, and their relationship with the natural world, but I might as well try.

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