BuzzFeed stole my article, so I’m stealing it back
Last week I wrote an article about a new trend involving people tweeting photos of themselves and others falling down stairs. Roughly two hours later, BuzzFeed posted essentially the same article with a few new photos and some dad jokes. So I’m going to screengrab their entire article and steal it back. Aggregate their aggregation; aggrega-ception.
But don’t worry, I’ll hide the citation to their piece somewhere below to give them the appropriate amount of credit.
It’s possible that it was just a coincidence that we both came up with a similar idea at around the same time and ran with it. Parallel thinking happens. I’d assumed this was the case, until I saw they actually did cite my article. It’s just buried deep in theirs, below two large, vertical images. If you blink, you’ll miss it.
At this moment, their article has received 127,167 total views (according to their hit counter). We received 115 clicks back. Thanks, fellas.
What constitutes a proper citation? Most bloggers have come to an unspoken agreement that you generally cite your sources in the first paragraph with an obvious link, and/or at the bottom of the article (i.e., “via ‘site name’”). BuzzFeed did neither.
Sure, these rules aren’t official, but it’s basic human kindness and intellectual awareness; an understanding that someone else got an idea before you, and that this transcends corporate demands to get more unique page views and/or the desire for personal acclaim. It’s also an implicit understanding that the media world is a small and incestuous one, that pretty much everyone knows each other, and you probably shouldn’t be an asshole.
Am I being too cranky? Possibly. But other websites did cite us properly. One was a Thai website (I just Google translated their wonderful headline: “Caucasian teens flock shooting down the stairs!”), so this etiquette transcends language barriers.
It’s worth wondering, though, if there is such a thing as “stealing” content that already exists on the web—content that you didn’t create. What is the value of an idea, and organizing preexisting content to convey it? Does adding value to a story, or as BuzzFeed’s founder Jonah Peretti calls it, making it “transformative” (in this case, adding a few new photos and some really unfunny jokes), neutralize the fact that their idea wasn’t original?
For my piece, I investigated a personal curiosity about the extent to which people are willing to post embarrassing photos of themselves online. I spent hours searching various terms (including people spilling stuff on themselves) until I found a collection of photos of people falling down stairs. I then wrote an essay about it, which took about two hours. Is it acceptable to be irritated when someone at a bigger website piggybacks off your own hard work?
This isn’t the first time BuzzFeed has stolen stuff. Last month, they took a photographer’s photo without his permission (thankfully, after he wrote a critical essay in Slate, BuzzFeed agreed to pay $500 to the charity of the photographer’s choice). They also stole Nimrod Kamer’s Wired piece. Additionally, most of their articles are taken from Reddit, as Slate found last year. Gawker then wrote a post about the original Slate piece — properly citing the article, of course.
It should be mentioned that I think my original article is pretty stupid. It’s a “teens doing crazy stuff ” piece that 20 years ago might have run on a local news channel. So why should I be angry that something so dumb was essentially plagiarized?
It’s worth worrying about the larger ethical implications. If you changed the topic of my piece to something more serious—say, if it was an interview with a Syrian rebel—and they copied the interview without offering proper credit—would this be less ethical?
As BuzzFeed makes a push into more serious journalism (it’s become a cliche refrain for someone to say, any time you criticize the site, “Yeah, but they do some pretty good journalism sometimes!”), will they cease these tactics? Or are they built on a foundation of casual “transformative” plagiarism that will never truly change?
It’s becoming harder to criticize the site. They receive an insane amount of traffic, so after they “aggregate” and “transform” your idea, more people will think of them as the original creators. Very little of the traffic will ever get back to you, even if they end up relenting and properly citing you; the damage is done, the story is stale.
Worse, many sites are starting to partner with BuzzFeed, and this is helping stifle critical articles. During my previous run-in with them, a few journalists wrote me saying they wished they could write about it, but couldn’t because of their respective websites’ partnerships with the company.
It seems like the only way to successfully criticize BuzzFeed is via cheap link bait stunts like this one, and hope that it causes enough PR damage that they eventually have to concede or risk losing the fun image they’ve carefully cultivated for themselves.
But if partnering with the Koch Brothers didn’t kill that image, it’s hard to imagine an issue as formless as the ethics of creativity would.
I wonder: is this what would a corgi do?