A Rambling Post on Cultural Theft in the Internet Age

Last week was one of the more enjoyable ones in the realm of social tech, as hipster photo sharing app Instagram finally got an Android release, racking up an astonishing five million downloads in six days [and pissing off a small army of elitist iPhone owners in the process].  On the heels of that success came the news yesterday that Lord Zuckerberg and the Dread Facebook Legion were acquiring the service for a cool billion dollars.

Not bad for a company with 13 employees.

As users celebrated/bemoaned the acquisition, I found this interesting factoid via Tumblr [yes, I still use my Tumblr, it’s actually pretty useful for news, and I require The Daily Frenchie  for my well-being]: With the Facebook buyout, Instagram is now worth about a dozen Kodaks, the company who invented many of the cameras that inspired Instagram’s signature style.

One could argue that this is just the nature of the capitalism, that Kodak’s inability to innovate in the digital age is what sprung the leak that sank the ship.  But I wonder if you couldn’t also argue that a company like Instagram pilfering the creations of  Kodak didn’t contribute more to the company’s decline than we realize, and how many other online services we use are actually damaging innovation.  I’ll try to walk this through behind the cut.

To my mind, the major element of what we preciously called Web 2.0 back in 2003-2004 had to do with creation: the emergence of cheap, accessible tools for users to create music/art/content.  The major element of what we now call Web 3.0 [actually, no one might call it this, I have no idea what number are we’re up to now] centers on distribution.  The ascension of the ‘Share’ button, the ease in which we can consume something online and immediately distribute it to everyone in our social networks with the click of a button, no matter which network we prefer; that’s the story of the Internet now.

We all do it: we reblog, we retweet, we post to Facebook, we upvote on Reddit. But very rarely do we consider where those things originate, from whose mind they sprang. For every photo or piece of art that gets posted online and gains any traction, you can count on millions of people to use the thing on their own blogs and profiles:  we use these photos and articles and videos to decorate our online lives, so our friends can marvel at our good taste and thank heavens we allow them to be friends with us.

Pinterest strikes me as the most typical and egregious offender of this sort of filching. I’ve never used it because I don’t see the point [one of the rare occasions where I find the real world equivalent superior to the online offering].  But I browse the pinboards of friends and sometimes wonder where the images came from, who the creator is, and I can never find out. The only credit or citation is either something like Google or Img.ur, or the equally vague ‘uploaded by user,’ which could just mean the pinner dragged the image to their desktop from the original source before uploading to the site.

This isn’t to say Pinterest is a wholesale thievery factory: I know a number of skilled amateur photographers and crafters use the site to showcase their skills. But they fall in the sharp minority when compared to most users who treat the site as virtual school locker door.  These images and songs and articles, they didn’t spring fresh from the void, they came from someone’s work and ideas. And what incentive is there for these creators to share their work if they just run the risk of losing acknowledgement as the original makers?

I hear you out there, friends: You’re full of shit, Ferguson! You love stealing! You’ve wasted more ink justifying it more than anyone I know!

Well, you’d be right and you’d be wrong.  I’m all for stealing in the interest of making something new with it, of remixing and re-situating. In most of those cases, it’s clear where the points of origin are: you listen to a Girl Talk album, or watch some video mash-up of Star Wars and The Breakfast Club and you know where all those pieces come from and marvel at how they get rebuilt into something unbelievable.  Nothing spurs ideas like other ideas, and I would and will never look to deny anyone that luxury.  But it seems to me like there’s a basic courtesy involved in letting the people in your social networks know where the things you’re sharing with them come from. You get to keep your admirable and discerning taste, and you give your friends a chance to learn more about where it came from.  That’s not a matter of ownership, it’s a matter of attribution.

I admit I have some nerve going on about all of this or a guy who lifts images for his posts with wild abandon. Truthfully, friends, I hadn’t really thought about it in this way myself until I saw those stats about Instagram. Thankully, as is usually the case, there are people smarter than me who have already been thinking about this.

The good folks at The Curator’s Code are advocating for a standardized system of symbols and citation for content creators, a means to signal to your audience where these things come from. As they state on the site:

This is what The Curator’s Code is – a suggested system for honoring the creative and intellectual labor of information discovery by making attribution consistent and codified, celebrating authors and creators, and also respecting those who discover and amplify their work. It’s an effort to make the rabbit hole open, fair, and ever-alluring. This not about policing the internet from a place of top-down authority, it’s about encouraging respect and kindness among the community.

Emphasis mine. The idea isn’t to strong arm the Tumblrs or Pinners of the world, it’s just to encourage the giving of props to the people who made these things.  I still think you should be able to do whatever you want with their creations, but you should always big up where you got the raw materials from.

Manners, people. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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