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my BuzzFeed plagiarism (maybe) debacle

This is an awkward reentry into writing here, since there’s plenty of other stuff to talk about, but let’s start with this:

BuzzFeed ripped off one of my MamaPop posts.

Note: What makes this whole thing kind of directionless is that MamaPop shut down for good a few weeks ago so the original post is no longer up. But I grabbed it before Tracey and Amalah turned off the lights and am reposting it here for the purposes of this little manifesto. I’m also reposting it for posterity, because it was one of my favorite things I’ve written.

So, anyway, here’s what happened.

A year ago, I had an idea to write a post about all of the turtlenecks in Love Actually. I was excited about the idea, but knew that it was so specific that I needed to research it first. I Googled it pretty extensively, resolving that if someone else had already written about it, I would figure out how to either reference it and take a new spin, or scrap the idea entirely. Because how many posts about turtlenecks in Love Actually could there be, right? So if someone had already covered it, writing it again would seem stupid at best, and a total rip-off at worst.

I didn’t come across anything and set to work on the laborious task of watching the movie and screencapping each turtleneck. That activity plus actually writing the post took quite a bit of time. But the post turned out great and when it went live on December 20, 2012 it got a huge response. (Well, huge for me.) I watched excitedly as the Facebook shares soared past 1,000. I entertained fantasies that I had written something that people would return to every holiday season, that it would make the rounds again every year. As someone who has written on the internet for a long time, this was the idea of creating something immortal, a goofy contribution to the weird and separate culture of what we discuss in this space.

Cut to a few weeks ago. I was scrolling through BuzzFeed and came across a post called “The Definitive Ranking of All of the Turtlenecks in Love Actually” by one of their writers named Erica Futterman. Stunned, I read through the post that was alarmingly similar to mine and contained a great number of the exact same screencaps. I could only assume that I had been ripped off and all of the dark stories that I’d heard about BuzzFeed’s practices were thrust into my face.

I would never assert that no one else could ever have the same goofy idea for a post. But I imagine that what happened next is that the writer of the BuzzFeed post did one of the following things:

a) Googled the idea, came across my post, and jacked it
b) Googled the idea, made it “original” by putting it through the BuzzFeed ordered list machine or
c) Wrote it without Googling it first

The first two scenarios make the writer close to, if not very much sitting in the lap of being a plagiarizer. Though that accusation seems strong since there’s not a lot of writing in her post. The best-case scenario is c), which means she didn’t do any research, which makes her a sloppy writer.

Aside from the brain-drippings that make up a lot of BuzzFeed posts, I’d heard of a few other examples of their writers taking liberties with the content of others. While I hadn’t been too offended by all of the stupid lists, having a fairly concrete example of their blatant pilfering was really jarring.

In the days immediately after the BuzzFeed post went up, two things happened: my grandfather’s funeral and MamaPop’s demise. Both of these pushed any outrage or urge to action way back in my brain and by the time I’d started to feel capable of thinking about it again, a few weeks had passed and MamaPop was gone. So the window for doing something (though I don’t really know what) seemed to have closed.

I’ve not been able to stomach the sight of BuzzFeed since, which quickly made me realize just how much content that site spews out daily. Basically every third item that I see shared on Facebook is from BuzzFeed and it still makes me cringe. I think we’re already aware that they tend to write about the same inane things over and over (37 Things 90s Kids Love, 15.7 Problems People with Glasses Have, 6 Things 90s Kids with Glasses Regurgitate), seemingly because they just churn posts out at a crazy pace. Original content must be close to impossible to generate between the constant deadlines so I have to imagine that the swiping and repackaging of topics is at least a somewhat significant problem. It kind of seems like an unstoppable machine at this point. It seems like their services as an aggregator are becoming blurred and want to serve as some kind of Reader’s Digest for the 18-30 demographic.

But, even if it’s just screaming into the void, here’s what I have to say to that writer, to BuzzFeed, and to writers in general as we navigate this shifting terrain and the internet muddles the rules. I know you’re busy. I know writing as a job, especially on the internet, is a Herculean task these days. But I think we all need to agree that a combination of the big standard rules of writing (like NO PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND EVER) and basic internet etiquette (“here’s this cool thing that I saw here,” just a totally minimal acknowledgment of where you found it) is reasonable even in this frenzy.

Seeing something that I worked really hard on just pared down and posted was really upsetting. And now that a behemoth like BuzzFeed took that idea and made it its own, it’s completely gone from me now. It really just…it really hurt my feelings, is what it comes down to.

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