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Bantamweight Publishing in an Easily Plagiarised World

Even professional writers are prone to infrequent accidental plagiarism. But in the world of novels, newspapers, and college exams, there are rules about bootlegging others’ work that are well-established – most everyone agrees on what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences are. In bantamweight publishing, however, the rules are not so clear.

In order for the British Army to raise more units during the First World War, it created battalions of otherwise healthy men with lowered minimum height requirements. In this way, short, powerful miners and similarly swarthy individuals were able to contribute to the war effort. These soldiers were called bantams (a term now heard most commonly in boxing, bantamweight). Similarly, in a Web 2.0 environment, the short powerful bursts of searchable, findable, and sharable data emitted from personal electronic devices are a form of bantamweight publishing in which persons outside the regulated publishing industry can contribute to the information sharing effort.

Bantamweight publishing comes in many forms. Twitter is certainly in this category, but there are a steadily increasing number of ways to share small bits of information with the world. From updating your Facebook Wall to Yammering inside your enterprise to updating your LinkedIn status to commenting on people’s BrightKite locations, everyone is doing it. But in an easily plagiarized world, who owns your sentences once you publish them? It’s not really clear. And in a murky environment where someone might get a macropublishing book deal by popularizing someone else’s creative hashtag, bantamweight publishing runs the risk of serious future problems.

Oh, bantamweight publishing has its customs. Self-policing crowds ensure that most people who lift someone else’s excellent quote or funny picture or news link give credit to the originator using the “retweet” (RT) convention followed by a username. But there is little downside to cheating relative to being expelled from college or fired from your newspaper. As is well known in animal behavior circles, it can be temporarily advantageous for cheaters to infiltrate a system like this.

To be sure, quoting someone’s original haiku verbatim and making it appear as if it were your own is an infraction of bantamweight publishing customs. But what if someone tweets an Abraham Lincoln quotation – must the re-tweeter cite the originator? The custom seems less pressing in this case, mainly because of a lack of intent to deceive and arguable “fair use” of a well-known statement by a famous person. One can imagine altruistic plagiarism as well, where people repeat memes to raise money for charity, or virally make people aware of an immediate Amber alert. Further, who could fault someone for copying information about a charity onto their Facebook Wall without citing the originator? In the bantamweight publishing world, information sharing can easily supersede attribution. There are gradations of citations.

Bantamweight publishing is popular among those who feel brevity is a virtue. But when an entire work of art is bounded in 140 characters, even brevity has its limits. Sometimes, squeezing in a proper attribution through editing content can change the original meaning, when the edits unwillingly shift from cosmetic to substantive. And what happens when you run out of space when attempting to retweet someone who retweeted someone who tweeted an important quotation from the Washington Post? To a large degree, a work of bantamweight publishing is like a painting with an upper weight limit, where the novelty is the canvas and the attribution is the frame; most viewers would choose to appreciate the canvas without the frame if given the hard choice.

Another major difference between regular publishing and bantamweight publishing is the lack of research and editing standards. Sometimes people attribute flawed information properly. It is obvious that excellent curators of information like NYU professor Jay Rosen and publisher Tim O’Reilly are exceptions to the rule, based simply on the phenomena of Rick Rolling, #moonfruit, and celebrity death hoaxes. To many, bantamweight publishing is not an micro-investigatory piece to be researched, sourced, edited, and spread, but rather a form of enhanced social chatter and gossip spreading. And according to the rules of gossip, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from; gossip is fun.

Few would argue that the British bantam units were a bad idea, and likewise bantamweight publishing has many virtues. But there are also pitfalls to this in an easily plagiarized world, particularly when money comes into play. Who’s looking out for the intellectual property of a winning hashtag that becomes a book, or a stream of haikus that becomes a blog that companies advertise on? At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?

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Comments: 10

  1. “similarly swarthy”? Uh, British miners were not noticeably swarthy, unless this was a reference to them being covered in coal dust.

  2. Thoughtful contribution, as usual, Mark. I think a lot of attribution.

    “altruistic plagiarism” — interesting concept.

    Yes, “sometimes people attribute flawed information properly,” which is all those more reason to attribute the source. I’ve been using HT (hat tip) much more often because of the abuse of RT I’ve seen so many other place. It saves a character, vs. “via” and functions the same way.

    I’m not sure about “the lack of research” — I follow certain people precisely because they post links to well-sourced materials and trust them to continue to do so.

    You are, no doubt, correct in your assessment of much of this bantamweight publishing world, full of swirling hearsay, misattribution, hoaxes and gossip. As editors and curators of that flow know, the key is in finding the signal in that noise and amplifying it.

  3. Browsed casually, a repeated tweet or quote might not show its origin. But a person who’s really curious can easily do a search across Twitter or web search engines and probably see the trail that the quote took. (I don’t believe such searches are possible on social networks such as Facebook, but I might just not know how to do them.) In other words, tools on the same medium used to spread the meme can help trace the meme.

  4. Interestingly, right towards the end of this TechCrunch story on Twitter’s internal discussions, they talk about attribution, retweeting, and so on, and how hard the topic is – http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/07/16/twitters-internal-strategy-laid-bare-to-be-the-pulse-of-the-planet/

  5. Aldoux Huxley’s term “Brave New World” is more meaningful today as we enter this chapter in history. Information within nanoseconds, and ReTweets that can be endless offers vultures the opportunity to capitalize on someone else’s words, thus riding the wave but on another’s surfboard.

    You have excellent points and your last sentence sums it up quite succinctly “At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?” – by Dr. Mark Drapeau

  6. I have a friend who repeats unoriginal hilarious one-liners on his FaceBook wall. Except that most friends think they are original. Naturally, he receives a gush of admiration every time he plagiarises. People specifically congratulate him for his wit. I do not think he believes he is doing anything wrong! That is where the problem lies.

  7. I do not think he believes he is doing anything wrong! That is where the problem lies.

  8. Update: Twitter is revamping how they run retweets, which has all kinds of implications (based on things in this post) – http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/13/twitter-announces-a-retweeting-api/

  9. Some historical perspective is in order here. McLuhan referencing Goldschmidt:
    “It cannot be doubted that for many medieval writers the exact point at which they ceased being ‘scribes’ and became ‘authors’ was not at all clear… We are guilty of an anachronism if we imagine that the medieval student regarded the contents of the books he read as expressions of another man’s personality and opinion. He looked upon them as part of that great and total body of knowledge.”

    Not making any value judgments, just suggesting another take on ownership in public discourse.