Of borrowed words on social media


A few weeks ago, when the Affordable Care Act went into effect and was fitfully launched, I had a thought that I thought would be mildly amusing to share on Twitter: what if, instead of working with government contractors at great cost to build the plagued website, Obama had simply gone through GoDaddy? Before tweeting I did a Twitter search for “Obama” and “GoDaddy” (which, if you don’t know, is the web hosting company famed most of all for its repulsively sexist SuperBowl commercials); and, well, it turns out that many others had tweeted more or less exactly the same thought.  So I abstained from adding one more variation on what had become a hackneyed and unoriginal theme for a joke.  (I’d say, “leave the jokes to the professionals” — but then again, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are professionals.)

This experience, and some recent instances on Twitter of word theft (or something like it), got me wondering about the status of borrowed words on the platform and on social media more broadly.  If you search “Twitter” and “plagiarism,” you will find plenty of people dissatisfied with the ease with which words are lifted and recirculated without attribution.  Twitter’s terms of service includes a copyright policy that emphasizes “the intellectual property rights of others,” and proposes a formal procedure in cases where copyright infringement is suspected.  Spend any time on Twitter, however, and you will encounter numerous instances of (largely) unnoticed, tolerated or simply overlooked, essentially unenforceable theft — that is, beyond the predictable but otherwise quite innocent levels of banality and unoriginality (such as in the instance above) that you will witness when thousands of people comment on any passing event of note. 

It is often observed (see “Further reading,” below) that the understanding of authorship and of what constitutes plagiarism is changing dramatically in the digital age — so much so that some scholars (Chandrasoma et al., 2004) question whether we should preserve the category of “plagiarism” at all.  The transformation in the concept of authorship is understood to be taking place largely as a byproduct of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.”  This phrase refers to the widespread transformation of cultural consumers into cultural producers, or (as one might more skeptically put it) to the increasing indiscernibility of production and consumption in the age of Web 2.0.  A participatory culture is one in which thresholds for cultural production are low and cultural objects circulate freely, often without regard to standards of single authorship.  Included in this domain are a wide variety of digital practices such as file sharing; participation on sites such as online bulletin boards, blogs, and social media; the culture of remix and mashup, widely assisted by the easy appropriation of digital materials; and a culture of collaborative, largely uncredited work, for which Wikipedia is one obvious model.     
In such a culture, it is generally agreed, plagiarism — though never a wholly transparent concept to begin with — loses some coherency in many teaching and learning contexts.  Like other cultural objects of sound or image, texts can be manipulated, appropriated, “remixed,” drawn from multiple sources, and collaboratively altered or produced.  If the 21st-century author is better understood as a collaborator with others and with systems of texts rather than an isolated individual producer of wholly original content, perhaps plagiarism has exhausted its utility as a concept.  Chandrasoma et al. go so far as to suggest that “students and staff do away with the notion of plagiarism altogether” (172), to embrace instead a more open-ended and context-dependent distinction between “transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.” 

Let us provisionally accept this substitution, ungainly as the terms are, and agree to consider tweets not as subject to plagiarism so much as to acts of transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.  Were I, having performed a Twitter search beforehand, to have gone ahead and tweeted a lame joke how Obama should have commissioned the site from GoDaddy, my act (I presume) would be one of the nontransgressively intertextual sort.  No authorial rights were harmed in the making of this (hypothetical) tweet.

Consider some other examples of borrowed words on Twitter, however, and the line between transgressive and nontransgressive use becomes more difficult to define and defend.  Example one: some weeks ago, a joke (provenance unknown) about Miley Cyrus and Home Depot

circulated widely on Twitter — so much so that its frequent circulation without attribution became a widely-circulated complaint in its own right. (for instance here: Later, the “original” jest was modified to become a joke about Marina Abramovic: 

Having circulated thus far widely and without attribution as a joke about Miley Cyrus, had the format of the joke acquired the status of a meme, making it subject to legitimate (nontransgressive) reappropriation?  If that is the case, was its nontransgressive intertextuality only acquired by repeated unattributed recirculation of the earlier tweet?

Example two is an ostensibly more clear-cut case of plagiarism, in which a tweet in September by Twitter user @angry_prof

was in November tweeted word-for-word without attribution by @GradElitism:
What followed was like an episode from a modern-day academic morality play: an initial reply from @angry_prof, followed by a series of incensed and condemnatory tweets from users including @CrankyStudent, @[Shit]AcademicsSay, and @ResearchGosling — like @angry_prof and @GradElitism, all of these anonymous (as far as I know) accounts. What one witnessed in this case was a situation, both bizarre and I think only bound to become more frequent in time, in which at stake was the right of one anonymous account to own and be credited for words that had been purloined by another.  (Not knowing the creators of either account, I can’t exclude the possibility that @angry_prof and @GradElitism are accounts operated by the same person.) The charge of plagiarism or of “transgressive intertextuality” in this instance represented a case in which the claims of copyright were asserted, but independently of the individual legal persons which copyright exists to protect in the first place.  

It is hard to say how much Twitter is an engine of such transformations in borrowed language or a mirror that reflects changes taking place in the culture at large. At some level, of course, what these instances point to is nothing new: language is a common property, belonging to everybody and nobody; ideas are at base social, coming into being in relation to other words and ideas, and largely dependent for their intelligibility on what has been previously said and thought.  What Twitter and other forms of social media may make visible (for better or for worse) is the frivolity of any effort to “own” our words when language was never ours in the first place.

Edit 12/31/2013

I wanted to record two responses I received to this post. Quite a few readers, mostly from anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, came forward with further instances of plagiarism by one Twitter user mentioned in the post, @GradElitism. Quite unexpectedly, then, a piece on the difficulty of distinguishing between collaboration and plagiarism in social media generated, for a time, a heated reaction against the predations of one social media user. I asked @GradElitism to contribute his or her end of the story; along with a few other users, I was blocked by the account.

From Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), I was reminded that women and persons of color are often the victims of plagiarism on social media through the unauthorized borrowing of words by people in positions of authority and/or privilege. Lee pointed me to a recent case in which Twitter user @FeministaJones created a popular hashtag (#RacismEndedWhen; see the first use of the hashtag below) that was subsequently appropriated by some news media outlets without attribution to its creator. Loose standards for attribution on social media make it easier to get away with theft of this sort. As Lee (and Sarah Kendzior, see below) observed, real issues of power are involved here too, where words from marginalized individuals and groups are appropriated, and their voices marginalized still further in consequence.

Further reading 

Ranamukalage Chandrasoma, Celia Thompson, & Alastair Pennycook, “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality,” Journal of Language, Identity, & Education 3.3 (2004), 171-193.

Nicholas Diakopoulos et al., “The Evolution of Authorship in a Remix Society,” HT ’07 (September 2007), 1-4.

Lea Calvert Evering & Gary Moorman, “Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56.1 (September 2012), 35-44.

Henry Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

Trip Gabriel, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” The New York Times (August 1, 2010). 

Debbie Wheeler & David Anderson, “Dealing with Plagiarism in a Complex Information Society,” Education, Business, and Society 3.3 (2010) 166-177.