There’s been a lot of hubbub on the internet lately, in social media circles as well as the traditional press, about the issue of plagiarism in social media.
Now, plagiarism has been a problem online for a long time, but social media brings something different to the discussion. Back when the internet was young, and you had to pay your own hosting fees and code your own website, it was a lot more difficult, and just plain inconvenient to plagiarize. You had a static site and relatively few ways to distribute your work. Much like with books, the Static Web was everywhere, but not all that hard to police.
But social media and the content creation movement has changed all that. Where once we had the Static Web, with people coding their own sites by hand, or paying someone else, we now have the Dynamic Web, where for the cost of an internet connection or a walk to the local library, anyone can have as-good-as-infinite accounts on the hundreds of content creation and social media sites whose struggles carry vibrations all across the Web. And these sites auto-create pages from databases and some PHP/RoR/Perl code. No more commitment-heavy hand-coding.
There are actually two issues at hand here. Although content creation platforms and social media platforms are different in method, they are similar and ethos, and their differences shrink daily, as VBulletin includes blogging features in their forum software, and Facebook Groups function much like an old-style message board. The effect of both of these Dynamic Web implementations is to bring written speech much closer to casual speech.
It used to be that creating written work required a commitment to the end product. People struggled over letters to friends, competed to be published in newspapers. Many people ascribe the various issues with Dynamic Web speech to the lack of gate-keepers or competition. But what’s really going on is deeper than that. Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter store speech in text format, a status on Facebook, or a tweet on Twitter, is not really the written word. It’s treated and acts much more like a comment tossed off in a college discussion class, or a joke made to a friend.
And where the disconnect between people in the Static vs. Dynamic Web paradigms happens is that the Tweeter or the Facebook poster isn’t thinking of their status as a publication. So when they leave off a citation, or mis-attribute a quote, they don’t consider the consequences. After all, we’ve never policed the spoken word to the extent that we police the written word. It would be impossible.
So when I stumbled across the false MLK quote doing the rounds on Facebook and looked it up on Snopes.com, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t really from MLK. If it had been a spoken word mis-quote, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. The maximum propagation rate for the spoken word is relatively small. It’s limited by memory, by audience, by time, by importance, by significance. But because the text Web is searchable, because it allows instant access to much larger social networks, because the Web is forever, the propagation rate of a statement is significantly higher. What would have been an un-important mistake in a casual conversation with a few friends has the potential to reach a much larger audience. And that audience, reached through the Dynamic Web, is more likely to treat the statement as normal speech, and therefore, before passing on this mis-quotation, they are unlikely to source and cite it. And then we have the issue that we had with the MLK quote and many others in the last few years.
As an example of this dis-connect, I have an anecdote I heard from a friend of mine. He was perusing his Facebook feed, and came across an screencap from tumblr showing images and recipes for cocktail shots based on Eevee’s evolutions in the Pokemon games. He shared it. As it happened, one of his friends was friends with the person who had created the shot recipes. And who was shocked and a bit creeped out to find it coming back to her in this circuitous Kevin Bacon effect manner. Whoever had learned about it from her probably didn’t consider it plagiarism to pass it on. After all, one of the features tumblr is most well known for is the “reblog” feature. Which actually does a decent job of citation. Tmublr has a system for that.
And so we encounter the other disconnect of the Dynamic Web. Not all sites have the same terms of service, and very few sites, if any, have clear rules for how content is to be treated if shared outside the boundaries of its original, individual site. You may have come across the auto-citations that many sites have started adding to links and copy-pasted quotes. Or how a major art-based social media and display site, DeviantArt, implemented an anti-hot-linking system a few years ago. All of these are individual sites’ attempts to combat the casual speech ethos of the Dynamic Web. But what we really need, what would actually do something to solve the greater problem, is to educate people on the differences between social networks and content creation platforms and casual, real-world speech. Perhaps the chat systems implemented by Facebook and other such sites are somewhat equivalent to casual speech. But a Facebook status or a blog post is not. You can’t treat them the same way, because as a decade or so of evidence has shown us, the consequences of such speech are very different.
Now, it isn’t a sure thing that Dynamic Web speech is the same as professional publication or journalism, either. It may be in-between. But better to err on the side of intentional publication than of casual speech.
(Maybe next time I’ll address plagiarism of status and blog articles more specifically.)