I learned not to plagiarize at a young age, with the admonition, “I’ll be able to tell.” This was in middle school before everyone understood how the internet worked, and it was a lot easier to get away with stealing huge chunks of other people’s work. I never did it—first, because it offended my writerly sensibilities, and second, because I really did believe my teacher would be able to tell. The internet has made things tougher for plagiarizers, but it’s also given them much more material to choose from. So while I no longer worry about my academic papers being copied—uh, you can have them, if you really want—I now concern myself with Twitter theft.
Why steal tweets? I guess the simple answer is you’re not funny enough on your own. I have seen several of my 140-character musings copied word-for-word or tweaked slightly and posted by someone else. I’ll admit my first reaction was a swelling of pride (what’s that expression about imitation?), because being plagiarized made me feel as though I’d arrived. That initial burst of excitement was followed closely by rage: a fraud was getting credit for my work. All of this was rendered more infuriating by some of the responses I got, which could be paraphrased as, “Who cares?”
I mean, I do. But this speaks to a larger issue, the misconception that by putting something online you’re basically giving anyone license to nab it. One of my favorite bloggers, FourFour’s Rich Juzwiak, has encountered this on more than one occasion, with his expertly edited supercuts used (without credit) on major TV shows. I doubt I put as much effort into single tweets as Rich does into his videos, but they’re still my work. It’s true that 140 characters (or fewer!) isn’t much, not when compared to the incalculable number of characters in a full-length novel. (It’s not actually incalculable, but who wants to do that math?) Still, you can do a lot in a tweet, and the best tweeters do: you make a point, or you tell a joke, and if you’re lucky, it makes an impression.
In other words, size isn’t everything, but I’d guess that’s how many Twitter thieves justify their plagiarism. Is it really stealing if you’re only grabbing two sentences? This is also a culture in which people quote their favorite movies incessantly (oh, God, so incessantly), which also might encourage the belief that jokes, once shared, are in the public domain.
I can’t believe I even have to say this, but it’s something a significant portion of the internet still hasn’t taken to heart: It’s wrong to pass off someone else’s work as your own. What is common sense for some means nothing to others, as evidenced by the number of people asking me what the big deal was when I lamented my plagiarized tweets. And yes, to an outside observer, I can see how it might seem a little silly. (“Hey, I made that dick joke first!”) But my tweets, however brief or vulgar, are my writing. I value them as much as I do my blog posts, my articles, and my essays—and I expect others to show the same respect.
Nothing irks me more than the “it’s just Twitter” response, especially when it comes to the defense of a plagiarizer. Twitter is a fast-paced, constantly-updating forum, yes, but that’s all the more reason it’s important that we’re given proper credit for our work. The things we post online may last, but they’re just as likely to disappear quickly. The digital world is transitive, and that makes it easy for a thief to sneak in and steal something old just to regift it as something new. Plagiarism matters even more because tweets are, in the long-run, insubstantial. It’s tough to establish staying power or to determine authorship, which is partly why I defend my tweets with such intensity.
But what “it’s just Twitter” also disregards is how much the site means to so many aspiring writers, myself included. No, we can’t all get a TV series or a book deal out of it, but Twitter has a massive impact on our styles, our senses of humor, and yes, sometimes our careers. I never even knew I wanted to write comedy until I started getting a positive response to my Twitter, which has opened up new avenues to me professionally. It may “just” be Twitter to you, but to many of us, it’s a unique outlet for our voices. And when another person takes credit for my voice? You’re damn right I take that seriously. I think I’d be a fool not to.
Crossposted to Huffington Post Media here.