Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Did Patton Oswalt Plagiarize Mr. Rogers?

Following news of the bombing in Boston, comedian Patton Oswalt posted a short piece on Facebook that boiled down to "when bad people do bad things, remember all the good people who rush in to help." Did he steal it from Mr. Rogers?

Of course he didn't. Oswalt credits the central idea of his post to FAKE Gallery founder Paul Kozlowski and Kozlowski, whether he realized it or not, was expressing the same sentiment that Mr. Rogers expressed (on Good Morning America, I think) following 9/11 (chances are good that your Facebook feed is lousy with that meme today as well). Oswalt took the central idea and expanded it into his own mini-essay about the events in Boston.

So why ask whether Patton Oswalt is a thief in my headline? Easy. To make you click. It's called link-baiting, and usually consists of using a headline that suggests something is more controversial than it really is so people will click and share (often without actually reading) the link. This increases your page's rankings on social media sites and search engines and, more importantly, gives you traffic (and ad revenue). Unlike this post, most link-baiting sites will front-load their "stories" with several paragraphs of fluff and quoted text (which we'll get to in a minute) so you have to click through multiple pages of ads before discovering that the source for the controversial fact is some random idiot with absolutely no credentials in the subject being discussed (probably Jenny McCarthy).

Even when these sites aren't creating fake controversy, they're experts in siphoning away other peoples' web traffic by "reporting" on comments or actual journalism from other sources. These "reports" of course, don't offer any analysis or additional information, just enough of a frame to allow them to quote the original content, usually very nearly in its entirety (how many of you first saw Oswalt's comments via Huffpo?). Since these sites are optimized for social media sharing, (and since people are lazy), the site owners are fully aware that most people who see the "story" will share it rather than click a link or do a Google search to share the original source. The practice is somewhere between plagiarism and vampirism. Once you know about it, it's not hard to spot. When you see it, either don't click those links or take the extra step and share a link to the site of the person who actually wrote the content or reported the story instead of the site that's leeching their traffic. Making money off the labors of others without contributing anything meaningful is something Wall Street can handle just fine without help from Buzzfeed.

By the way, it took me every bit of one Google search and one click to reach Oswalt's Facebook post.  If you want to share what he said, link to it so he gets the credit in terms of newsfeed placement and rankings.
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