Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
It was this past Saturday afternoon when Richard Clark, our editor-in-chief, posted the link to our Facebook group. “Welp,” he wrote, “that’s tacky.”
A site had lifted one of our pieces wholesale, failed to credit the author, and posted it to its blog. Some more digging turned up nearly a dozen that were stolen from us, plus a long history of theft from other sites. Richard contacted the site’s editor, politely asking that they be removed. Said editor responded first by feigning ignorance, then by blocking Richard (and the rest of us), then by taking to Twitter to air his indignation that we would have the gall to complain when he stole our work. Our various writers and allies buzzed around his head like so many flies, taking snarky shots until he took everything down without apologizing. It was ugly, and it was brutal.
And I stood in the shadows, hanging my head, knowing that I had once been standing in the same place as that editor.
When I was fresh out of college back in 2007, I had the good fortune of being invited to help a new acquaintance launch a film review website we called MovieZeal (see a bastardized version here). Eventually I found myself filling the role of something like a managing editor position as we grew our ranks of writers and made our mark on the Web.
Eventually we added a man we knew only from online interactions. His name was Sam. He was a middle-aged guy and a high school teacher who passed the time by writing film reviews and emailing them to his friends. They were better than you’d expect (foreshadowing!), and he brought with him a loyal following of readers, all of whom would comment on every review he posted with “Excellent review, Sam!” or something to that effect.
A little obnoxious, but he was a good writer, and he brought in traffic. Plus, he lived in New York, so he was able to cover some of the more limited releases that the rest of us were missing out on.
Until one night.
I think it was a Thursday night, and I was poking around the comments section of the site on one of Sam’s reviews. One recently added comment was from a guy who identified himself as an editor for something called Slant Magazine.
“This may or may not be an ‘excellent’ review,” he wrote, “but there is at least one sentence that is indeed ‘excellent.'” He then identified a sentence lifted from a Slant review and demanded we remove it. (Full disclosure: These aren’t exact quotes. I’m writing from memory because the conversation is long-deleted.)
Maybe it was because he was kind of rude about it. Maybe it was because I had never heard of Slant Magazine. (I’ve since learned that they’re apparently a big deal? Big enough to have their own Wikipedia entry, anyway? I dunno.) But for whatever reason, I decided to be snarky instead of conciliatory. “I just looked at your review, and I didn’t see that sentence,” I commented back. “But you’re welcome for the free publicity.”
Probably most of you (who have, most likely, heard of Slant but not of MovieZeal) are shaking your heads in disbelief right now. It was true, though: I had skimmed through the review and hadn’t seen the sentence in question. I had even done a text-search for the first few words and come up empty—because, of course, Sam had changed the first few words.
“Third paragraph, second sentence,” he shot back. “Now take down this article.”
I looked. And there it was. D’oh.
At this point, you’d think I would have beaten a hasty retreat and tried to make things right. But he was being a jerk, and jerks are never right. And further, I had already committed myself to belligerence. So I kept arguing. “It’s probably just a coincidence. Anyway, it’s half a sentence. Get over yourself, dude. And I’m not really in-charge-in-charge here, so whether we take this down isn’t really my decision.”
It was at this point that he got all cease-and-desisty on me.
“NOT YOUR DECISION!? THIS IS STOLEN MATERIAL. And we’ve poked around and found entire reviews this guy stole, and we’ve got caches of all of them, and we’ll take legal action if we have to.”
And finally, I realized exactly how damning the evidence was. Not just half-sentences, but whole reviews, lifted word-for-word. Each with his customary train of “Excellent review, Sam!” comments. A big black eye on the site, and I had just spent my evening rubbing salt into it.
We fired Sam and took all his reviews down, but the site was never the same. We never recovered from the embarrassment that I had helped exacerbate.
A few weeks later I was talking to Evan, our editor-in-chief. “I don’t get it,” I told him. “We weren’t paying Sam. He didn’t have any deadlines. If he hadn’t turned something in, literally nothing would have happened to him. Why all the theft?”
He sighed, bit his lip, and said, “I think it’s just the praise of men. Y’know?”
“Yeah,” I said, gazing at my shoes with a newfound disgust for comment sections.
It was Pride, the same sin that had led me to defend a writer who was beyond defense. A desire to be seen as the smartest person in the room and an inability to admit that I, or anything I had done, was wrong.
This sort of thing is easy to avoid in real life, where it usually becomes clear who the real jerk in each interaction is. On the Web, though, we can all take as much time as we want to think through our responses and convince ourselves we’re in the right. And if we’re good with people, we can even build up an army of fans to insulate us from any and all criticism.
The day after we took down Sam’s work, we were inundated with comments from his “Excellent review, Sam!” fans, all berating us for hurting his feelings. To appease them, Evan and Sam published a joint statement in which they discussed the incident.
“I apologize for being seduced by the words of others,” Sam wrote. “But I’m a good guy. My students love me, and I’m active in my community.” And then all the ugliness happened in the comments again, with his entourage continuing to defend a blatantly unethical and illegal act.
Later on, my wife said to me, “You shouldn’t be so quick to trust people. You never even met Sam. You don’t even know if he is who he says he is. For all you know, he and his commenters were one and the same.”
And honestly, I wouldn’t put that sort of prideful behavior past him.
Or, for that matter, past me.