Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Twitter Theft (And How HuffPo and BuzzFeed Steal)

For the vast majority of users, Twitter is not important. I understand that. In the same way that I find scrapbooking a life-draining expense of time and creative effort, I can understand someone looking at my Twitter feed as 30,000+ depressing examples of life pissed into a void.

But, just as scrapbooking gives a mode of expression to its fans, we have to acknowledge that Twitter provides a unique medium for creative discourse that people would otherwise not find. There are Twitter clich├ęs, subcultures and superstars, and as absurd as it seems even within them, they all have value for people. Which is why, as in any other circumstance in which we establish value, theft is shitty.

Last week, someone created a Tumblr called Borrowing Sam, a clearinghouse of screenshots for plagiarized tweets made by a Twitter user named "@Prodigalsam" Sammy Rhodes, a campus minister at the University of South Carolina. Go. Read it. It's damning, and it's sad.

Prodigalsam defended himself in a Tumblr post in two ways. We'll get to the second later, but for now he wrote:
Part of what I think has happened in terms of the tweet theft accusations is that for years now I’ve been doing tweets that are pretty clearly inspired by the tweets of my twitter heros.
It would be a heartening explanation if it weren't thoroughly unacceptable. Inspiration is not editing or reframing. (It would be more heartening if this didn't happen instantly after the apology.) When one is inspired by an artist, one tries to create something new in his or her style. Simply rewriting what that artist already said is plagiarism with minimal effort.

By these lights, every fourth grader who rewrites the World Book Encyclopedia entry on sharks for a report on sharks is an original artist. Or, in case this inspiration/theft discussion seems too abstruse, think of it this way: Clueless is inspired by the Jane Austen book Emma; meanwhile, all the movies called Emma though written slightly differently, are still goddamn Emma.

It's hard to see what Prodigalsam's endgame could have been. He stole tweets repeatedly from people more famous than he, with bigger followings and verified checkmarks. His follower count blossomed into six figures. At some point, harvesting followers with the work of others was bound to draw the attention of those who were already fans of those others. The overlap would start to become noticeable.

What he would like you to think is that this is coincidence. People come up with the same jokes all the time. Usually, those jokes are very obvious or far less complex than sentences lasting almost 140 characters. For instance, just last week, I inadvertently "stole" a tweet from a guy named @Mattytalks. There was a trending topic called "#ThingsNotToDoOnAFirstDate" and I tweeted, "9/11."

The differences between Prodigalsam's behavior and coincidence are manifest. First off, there are long-standing online jokes that someone did 9/11. Either it was Bush or the Mossad or some other conspiracist group; it's a common trope. More to the point, "9/11" is a four-character gag. Despite faves and RT's coming in, I linked to Matty's tweet, acknowledged that he beat me and deleted my tweet. I'd thought of it on my own, but profiting from it was cheap. All the same, coming up with similar one-word or one-term jokes offers far greater chances for coincidence than, say, making this tweet when you admit in your Tumblr apology that you are a Rob Delaney fan.

The natural question is, "What the fuck could Prodigalsam have been thinking?" And the answer is something that probably doesn't easily occur to his victims: that he could really easily get away with it.

It's impossible to fulminate against poaching tweets as "the theft of intellectual work product" without indicting mainstream journalism as a whole. The online wings of major print media have spent half a decade now treating Twitter as a litigation-free harvest of profitable and entertaining content wherein its creators have no rights. My tweets have appeared in the Huffington Post and other online organs' slideshows without links back to me, attribution or my consent, all to said organs' profit.

Buzzfeed, where friends of mine work, regularly screencaps tweets from others, then runs those screencaps as whole articles. Because the tweets are capped, their creators don't get easily retweeted, favorited or followed, which means they don't reap an immediate benefit for their appearance. Also, capped tweets (often) don't appear on search engines, meaning that their writers don't even know where they're being harvested, exploited or, depending on your point of view, plagiarized. While the screencapping policy is probably innocuous (if the users delete their tweets, the content of the article disappears), there's no reason not to hyperlink each screencap to the original tweet and cover both bases. Buzzfeed might mean well, but Buzzfeed is a rogue's gallery of poachers and profiteers.

One can imagine that Prodigalsam believed the Internet already devalued tweets to the extent that they are fair game. When the sorts of people who should normally vociferously defend the value of creators' original work product—i.e. journalists—instead treat an entire medium as a pageload orchard for precious, precious adclick revenue, it's easy to excuse yourself for exploiting it as well.

Prodigalsam also understood something at the heart of plagiarism that readers don't understand: writers don't compulsively run Google searches for their own lines. For one thing, only a tiny few are that narcissistic; for another, which lines would you Google? What if they've been rewritten in just a few ways—as Prodigalsam did? How would you even know?

I've been plagiarized over a dozen times, and each time I only learned of it by accident. A reader saw something memorable I'd written appear under another byline on another site he or she already followed. (This sort of reader-generated discovery happened to a guy I admire just a few weeks ago.) Each time, I was stunned at how little effort the plagiarist made to make the piece his own. Barely any changes to telltale turns of phrase, needless preservation of my overwrought style, dashes everywhere, discursiveness to the point of exhaustion. The fucker could have at least slimmed it down.

It would be easy to make jokes about Prodigalsam "Sammy Rhodes" and how much he looks like an unctuous Seth MacFarlane hiding behind a Starsky era costume mustache. But it's easy to pity him, too. Not in the way he wants to be pitied, but pity nonetheless. Here's how he wants to be pitied:
Part of the weirdness of last Wednesday is that while I was cast into a deep depression over some stupid stuff, my (small ‘s’) special needs daughter took her very first steps at physical therapy. I rarely post personal things, but I actually posted that video at the end of the day as a kind of reminder to myself. Followers are great. Family is better. Friends too. I need to remind myself of this a lot. Twitter is like a crappy Narnia. Real life is better.
Allow me to say for the record that, if this man really does have a special-needs child, my heart goes out to him. That said, using said child—real or not—as an emotional smokescreen when being accused of theft is vile.

Perhaps it makes me hard-hearted, but online confrontation frequently and exhaustively results in a condition best called Munchausen-by-Internet, wherein personal or familial problems are magnified to behavior-warping and deterministic issues, or where invented problems immediately induce so much pity as to obviate all need for further criticism. These are the human shields put up before conduct so shabby as to instantly degrade humanity. That your daughter has trouble understanding things is no explanation for why you don't understand creative rights.

That your daughter occurs to you as a reasonable response to "you stole things" makes you either a sociopath or a wretched liar. The latter explanation comes through most strongly when you say on your Tumblr that you want to transition from a "fan" base—due to your amazing tweets that others wrote—toward a "friend" base, where people like you for you, for some reason unrelated to the tweets you stole. I guess because you were being a swell poppa bear while committing robbery?

I concede that this fury might sound like "not very much." But, if you'll pardon my solipsism, Prodigalsam stole something real, however ethereal it might seem.

Just a few years ago, I posted blogs into the nothingness, with 15 readers at a time, all of whom could reliably be assumed to be people who knew me in some way. A year later, I spoke to a few thousand, because of Twitter. Two years later, I had a full-time, wonderful job. (I'm now freelancing—hire me.) Twitter helped me get closer to the career I always wanted.

From Twitter, I watched as a clever, foul-mouthed poetess went from a thousand followers to nearly 20,000, appearances in the New Yorker, a lecture at a college and a book. I watched friends of mine send Pitbull to Alaska, while others exposed the nakedly inhuman social-media responses of major corporations. I was lucky to be present at the creation of manipulations of what Twitter can be; I got to see smart people break it and remake it into something funny that nobody expected.

This, if nothing else, speaks to the emptiness of Sammy Rhodes' Prodigalsam account. For at least another year or two, before it's subsumed by profitability and managed accounts, Twitter offers an abundant freedom where a poet can make "SEXT" a hilariously transgressive and hot brand, while a hockey fan can make billion-dollar brands uncomfortable and ridiculous.

That someone would look upon that fecundity and think only of theft and short-cutting to success is pathetic. Prodigalsam says that he has never intentionally stolen a tweet, but in the same breath he admits that he writes homages to his favorite comics and should have asked permission from them. He admits to not wanting to seem like he was stealing, then admits that he should have sought permission for similarity. If you are original, you don't need to ask. If you're stealing, you beg for forgiveness.

All this, too, might be forgivable if Sammy Rhodes (Prodigalsam) were just some armchair comic. But he wants to stand up. And be a stand-up. He sells himself on his website, and tried to profit this way. There's no more dire code in comedy than, "Do not steal." He takes the words out of nameless people to go pro. He steals from people trying to create themselves and their names, and he begs and hopes that you won't notice. Sammy Rhodes, @Prodigalsam, is a scum-sucking piece of shit who should die of a lingering disease.

Last, to play "Sammy Rhodes" and "Prodigalsam" off into the sunset, David Thorpe—another easily stolen-from Twiter genius—and I brainstormed all the tweets that he would have stolen tomorrow:
If they made a burrito you could masturbate with, I'd never leave the house. Except to get the Jerk Off Burrito Deluxe.

Do you ever get a rodney when the barista writes your name on the coffee cup? I just want to be loved.

I own a lot of shares in Taco Bell. Well, I would, but I keep flushing them after they come out.

"hottie said she didn't want to keep meeting over tcp/ip but i was like, i want to see u p, then she stopped sending selfies"

I've heard snapchat is great for sexting, but it's hard to jerk off to a picture of a burger in only 10 seconds. Possible, but hard.

got embarrassed when i was the only one who logged into tinychat with an avatar of my dick

If they don't have Carl's Jr in heaven, I'm not going. Because you KNOW they have Carl's Jr in hell

I'll buy a 3D printer as soon as they can print bacon.

they say hardee's becomes car's jr at the rocky mountains, but lemme tell you, my d doesn't stop being hard anywhere

I love Burger King so much I should be arrested. And by "should be" I mean "have been."

When I'm at Starbucks and they ask me my name on my order, I always say the same thing, "Y'or n-Umber."

When I was a kid, I'd mix all the sodas at the McDonald's fountain to make a suicide. As an adult, my suicide attempts are a lot more sophisticated.

Don't you hate it when your Baconator says "I understand now... why you cry" before you lower it into the pool of stomach acid?

Want to see my Mr. Bean impression? Just be a girl and talk to me.