What is it to plagiarize in the age of the internet? What is it to steal?
The Open Letter
I read this open letter from comedian Davon Magwood, posted on his WordPress blog. I discovered it because someone else I follow tweeted about it. In the open letter, he says: “I shouldn’t have to asked to be credit for my work, neither should other comedians or clever social media people.” His open letter tells the story of having his jokes and content stolen by spammy, scammy comedians, the same ones that the rest of the internet is giving a very hard time right now.
I did a few things after this: I unfollowed @FuckJerry on instagram, I started following Davon Magwood on WordPress and twitter, and I clicked “like” on his blog post open letter. I have never followed Josh Ostrovsky (the person at the heart of most of this controversy through his repeated plagiarism) on any social media, so there was no need to unfollow him.
But then something started to bother me. As I researched more about this entire scenario, I realized that a lot of the people who were complaining about having “jokes stolen” are people connected with websites that routinely abscond with the jokes and ideas of others. Particularly, Buzzfeed.
The Buzzfeeders and the Fan Theories
This whole scenario hits home in a surprisingly-relevant way for me. My work has been linked-to more several times by other websites. This includes Huffington Post including my Fight Club Fan Theory in a list of Fight Club Fan Theories, which is totally cool and gives me consistent new readers. And it mentioned me by name and gave a direct link to the blog. But sometimes it isn’t cool when you see your ideas showing up on other websites.
Here’s the way it’s relevant, for me, right now. Just this last week, a Buzzfeeder rewrote something I had written and posted it as one of those loosely-regulated Buzzfeed Community posts. I won’t post to the Buzzfeed article or go into the details, so as not to demonize the person. What troubles me is not so much that this one Buzzfeeding person did this, but more that the culture created by Buzzfeed and other sites like it encourages this kind of behavior.
Originally, the Buzzfeed article only linked to a reddit post about the blog post. And yes, when I asked that my blog post be linked-to on the Buzzfeed article, it was. But, just like Davon Magwood said about the stealing instagram accounts, “You should assume that If I’m posting online that I want credit for whatever you share.” You shouldn’t have to be asked.
And this is what baffles me about this entire situation in which a few accounts and individuals are being singled-out as thieves and plagiarists. Is not the entirety of Buzzfeed, and so much of the internet beyond that, nothing but a cesspool of plagiarism? Isn’t that what it’s always been? We have Buzzfeed leaders and employees attacking TheFatJewish and FuckJerry for being “thieves,” while apparently not realizing that their entire website exists with such a design as to drive its users toward plagiarism and cheap tactics.
And it goes beyond that. Take a look at so many news sites and blogs. All you have is a YouTube video with one sentence introducing it and then three sentences summing it up. Or an “article” that’s nothing more than someone summing up the key points of an interview so that you don’t have to read it.
Taking a look at Buzzfeed right now, which is something I haven’t done in a long time, I mostly just see listicles mined from content that previously appeared elsewhere. And some blog posts in which someone uses gifs to paraphrase someone else’s ideas. I see very little that benefits anyone.
I also see a Buzzfeed article, on the front page, that summarizes the Davon Magwood letter, only with more photos, less thought, and larger font. Is this the journalism we deserve?
I’m glad Davon Magwood wrote the letter he wrote. I’m glad that people want this culture to change. But this isn’t a few bad instragram accounts. And this isn’t just Buzzfeed either. This is a culture. This is a world.
The TV in the Field
All of this reminds me of something that happened in college. A friend of mine found an old television and put it in a field. The field was on a path to the place where we lived, and it provoked a reaction, a thought, a response out of anyone who walked past this TV, sitting on a stump, with its cord plugged into the ground instead of an outlet.
Another student at the school walked out to the field and took a photo of the television. He put that photo, in all its black-and-white properly-framed glory, in a show for his photography class. People responded to it well. Most of them didn’t know that the television he had photographed had been in that field for months before he noticed it and took its photo.
And so this is what the question is for me: do you want to be the one who puts the television in the field, or do you want to be the one who took the photograph of it?
I know my answer.