Tribal Twitter

Plagiarism, in its many forms, ranks among the unquestionable (and unpardonable) sins that the educated classes recognize and punish. Deliberate copying, or even reuse of material in certain unsanctioned ways, appears on the short list of accepted career-ending offenses in the creative domain, a list that mostly contains wrongs we’d agree are less tolerable than repurposing a sentence someone else wrote.

High-profile plagiarism incidents in the press and academia gain plenty of negative attention and carry massive downside, but Twitter and the broader internet have made the reproduction of phrases, jokes and sentences easy enough for the masses that doing so has become an irresistible path to an often-miniscule, but sometimes decent, reward. Luke O’Neil explores this phenomenon in the Washington Post, documenting the successful Twitter one-liners that now echo eternally through the social network via easy copy/paste reproduction by hundreds of less clever users who would take credit for those jokes. Unlike the celebrity plagiarists, O’Neil explains, these account-holders face few consequences (although some have become quasi-celebrities through the success of their unattributed aggregation). This theft is frequently too difficult to prove, but generally nobody cares what a low-profile Twitter account does, so the behavior flourishes. The word plagiarism, it seems, is like assassination—it can only refer to high-profile subjects.

If Twitter leads to widespread joke-thieving, then, the next question we need to ask is “So what?” And when a relatively new technology or medium aligns so well with human tendencies that it lets a certain behavior explode, the next question we need to ask about that is whether the new behavior is wrong or just something natural that preceding environment had suppressed. To answer both questions, we need a more robust grasp of originality than we seem to have, and the technological milieu that has delivered us here might be the reason for this lack of clarity.

The age of mechanical reproduction (which hasn’t ended), in which the copying of text became easy and widespread, created a variety of opportunities to benefit from what others had written and published, with plagiarism on the most dishonest end of that spectrum. The ease of copying also created incentives that were at odds with creative production, and needed correction: Why labor over a novel or article that could be repurposed by a stranger and passed of as his work? Music, which never absorbed the concept of plagiarism as completely as the written word, faced a more egregious transition: Recorded music, to the live musician, was just as direct a threat, and arguably more dangerous to that musician’s livelihood. Before art could be mechanically reproduced, its reproduction was in itself a creative act that deserved at least some credit. Afterward, that was no longer necessarily true, and social taboos developed against exploiting those new conditions unfairly. The nascent digital sphere, it seems, combines qualities of both eras, fostering the strange feelings that Twitter plagiarism and other phenomena are inspiring in us.

Returning to the questions above, O’Neil himself finds evidence that a “post-originality” movement is flourishing in digital space, as articulated by a victim of that movement he interviews: “My hunch is there’s a sizable chunk of people who don’t really grasp what plagiarism is or why it’s wrong, and they kind of regard Twitter and social media as this giant free-for-all where everybody’s just constantly taking and posting whatever they want from whoever they want.”

In statements like this, O’Neil’s piece conveys frustration—that anyone finds satisfaction in stealing a stranger’s joke, or that the digital environment enables sufficient plausible deniability to conceal the crime. As shameful as stealing tweets may be, however, Twitter is not academia, the publishing industry, or even a blog, and to rail against this behavior is to impose those domain’s valid models on a medium where they can’t be effective. Twitter has always, quite obviously, been a diverse, free, and illegible ecosystem swirling with ephemeral content, where hundreds often make the same original joke or comment without even knowing. Even before the internet, it was not necessary to credit the (rarely knowable) source when repeating a joke in conversation. The notions of singular authors, originality, and authoritative versions will not easily be imposed on the medium without a great loss of vitality. Twitter, in this sense, is retribalizing man (returning us to premodern modes of being), as McLuhan believed so much electronic media would.

In the spectrum between honest content aggregation and deliberate plagiarism for personal gain, the unattributed reuse of digital content will continue and accelerate. Many of these reusers will be caught and shamed, many more will go ignored, and all who find some benefit from the act, regardless of their motives, will have received their reward in full. As post-original humans, they won’t know what they did wrong.

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