Self Referential

July 09, 2015 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Warning: Thought-pieces may cause mild dystopia and burning sensation during urination. But, they sure are satisfying to write.

I think we are witnessing a transformation of internet publishing beyond the upheaval of the subscription business.1 It's obvious that publishing original content is a fading career opportunity and is being replaced by micro blogs such as Medium, Twitter and even Instagram. Not only do I think these are replacing individual blogs, such as this site, but I believe they are actively speeding the demise of original work. This is not a burden laid squarely on Medium and its kin, but instead is owned by many authors that are either unaware of or actively resist proper attribution.

Many sites I frequent have sustained themselves through modest means of advertising, donations or any variety of awareness marketing. They are not selling material goods, they are selling attention and they are selling against the willingness of readers to come visit their site. When blogs, tweets and Medium posts obfuscate or omit attribution, it damages their "competition" but it also damages their future prospects. Who needs an authority when you can read one site with wholesale ripoffs.2 I think the new term for copy-paste publishing is "aggregation."

We now live in a world where anyone can reinvent themselves online but it's also a world where we can reinvent history and knowledge without regard for provenience or even precedence. Online publications have fostered a culture of neglected attribution because it works. It's not a small community of bloggers helping each other anymore. It's a business where authority begets attention and attention is the merchandise.

I'm sensitive to the difficulty in divining the true origin of a photo, quote or even an idea online. It can become a full time job to find an original source. However, it's become common to see someone tweet a photo that was extracted from someone else's tweet which was probably taken from a Tumblr. This type of crafted ruse takes far more effort than a retweet. What this tells me is that there's perceived value in presenting yourself as a source on the Internet. Not only is this common but it's now widely unchallenged which kind of feels like tacit approval.

I certainly do not propose that misattribution is the entire story about the meteoric rise of mediocre fame online.3 "Shit-ass" advertising tactics hold that throne.4 Instead, I think it's one of a long line of steps toward a cliff, the bottom of which awaits top five lists with out of context quotes and sensational lies. Eat it up. There's plenty more where that comes from. I just can't tell you where.

I know one thing--that a certain amount of pride always goes along with a teaspoonful of brains, and that this pride protects a man from deliberately stealing other people's ideas. That is what a teaspoonful of brains will do for a man--and admirers had often told me I had nearly a basketful--though they were rather reserved as to the size of the basket.

— Mark Twain

But on the other hand...

These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Brain Pickings


  1. New York Times seems to be doing OK with digital subscriptions but sites are closing and struggling every day. 

  2. I still kind of think excellent sites like The Instructional would have prospered if bigger sites help drive traffic rather than siphon the content

  3. I love the expression "meteoric rise" because it has a two equally valid and opposite interpretations. See StackExchange 

  4. Think what you want about Daringfireball but there's no doubt that John is an overall gift to smaller sites because of his insistence on high quality attribution.