14 de Abril, 2008
The Thieving Weave
TWO TOPICS have stuck out in my reading over the last day or two of words now Internexically stored in this crystallized pixelized box o' societal memoria. Appropriation and Torture. We will leave torture for tomorrow's dawn, and for this post I will write on Appropriation, Plagiarism, Intellectual Theft, Society, Psychology, and our friend in the electric blue boots, The Internet.
You may be aware. There is a discussion going on around these internets about using ideas and other peoples' words and not giving attribution and linking online, or in published work, or when you've drawn from other creative pools for your ideas. Okay, this has been less of a discussion and more of a "huge thing." You know, threads blowing up, blogs shutting off, etc. Feministe hit it the other day. You are free to add links, though that page has many, including trackbacks.
As is usual with these kinds of blowups (and you know, I began to list them but I don't even want to bring up the Old Bad Blog Times!) unless you are in the epicenter or nearby or have been following all the players for a while, it can be hard to feel you are informed. Things move fast up in here, people dump passages from history books on the floor all of a sudden, make big, heavy decisions and drastic statements it's like a huge invisible Senate vote all 'round. Have you weighed in? Have you voted? Who are you with? What do you Stand For?
I feel bad in a way because I too often am not as the "scene of the crime" when it all happens and would have to chase to catch up, spend hours reading, know my backstory...there's so much history, this unfolding Internet drama is like an epic play still being written, with huge ambitious themes and dramatic and deep characters who bring rich histories and origins and belief systems...and once again while it is all going on, I am dealing with jaw pain or leaky ceiling or pressing deadlines or arranging air travel (or not) to a wake, or my own art/work and I really am not comfortable with the amount or depth of understanding I have over exactly Wha Happen. Though it does touch on things I've thought about for a while, so I don't want to ignore the event.
Of course I know the rough outline. I know the caricature and the morality tale laid out, or at least the one that seems immediately apparent and available to me upon cursory reading. Age old patterns of those who have more access or more power using ideas that others with less power have originated (and this often corresponds with race/ethnicity/class signifiers/stations), stealing ideas, etc.
And yes, I've seen it online, too. The marginal blogs (people who identify as being of color, or gay, or trans, or not-mainstream in some way) can talk until they are blue in the face about something, and it remains in circulation only in those circles. (You recall the "pet issue" category?) But when a blog that identifies as mainstream (by being visibly and vocally "white," "het," etc, or in NOT visibily identifying as outside of that mainstream or known to be in the mainstream already) takes up these issues, suddenly it is The Thang. By now, I'm probably closer to where Kai was at on that just-linked thread. I've seen this enough times that I can't get a real rise out of it anymore. I accept that it is a dynamic in play. Not that I am not on the lookout for it. But I accept it is a real thing and in motion.
I feel there are many things going on. I probably wouldn't devote a post to this if I did not. The nature of the 'Net being what it is—an infinite bubbling stew of myriad inlets and ingredients and actors—it's hard to boil this down (sup upon my pun) to one factor one idea, one problem. It's tempting, and it's a start, but I can't leave it there. And honestly (and ironically), I can't definitively comment on the core specific complaint: that Amanda Marcotte published an idea typically espoused by bfp and other women of color (that the immigration response by ICE and many hate groups and our MSM presents feminist activists with a mandate to act and recognize that women are bearing the most weight of suffering and crime and injustice and exploitation) and wrongfully omitted an attribution. Because I haven't read Marcotte's work, I haven't read 98% of what she has written, don't know what she was writing at what time or what inspired her to write it; I don't read bfp every day tho I do know bfp has written of this for a while (what's a while? dunno, months? a year?), I didn't hear any speeches they made (that are, I think, being discussed?) and I also don't know who else speaks of this issue or who spoke of it "first." It would be stupid of me to comment on the specific as if I knew what I was talking about. Or more than I just have, at least. Too much of it is hearsay to me. And threadwar.
Some people say that these peoples' histories help tell the full story, but I don't know their histories, and I don't have time to investigate them exhaustively. Neither do I know who Hugo Schwyzer is, why I should, why that should bother me, or what gap that leaves in my life. I don't want to join a fight just cuz, and yes, there is an age-old pattern of intellectual theft that occurs in similar ways as to what is being discussed. The bigger picture is not in dispute. Or is it?
I'll admit, usually if it's a matter of people forcing me to choose a side I will do so based on the friends I've kept. But so what. I don't see anything glorious in sticking by your friends or in underlining that choice, because people stick by their friends. Or they are shmucks. Marcotte's will stick with her, and bfp's with her and we have two internix armies, and so what. Just as you can, I can justify my choice. I believe that what my friend fights for is inclusive of a wider range of people and so deserves my loyalty. But it might just be that I met her first. Or identify with other personal characteristics that may as well be arbitrarily bestowed upon a person. And maybe blogging is not all there is, and I don't know what Marcotte does in the rest of her time. We see that in the end, those types of discussions quickly change and are no longer about the ideas that started the discussion. They are about allegiance, and that is something entirely different. Furthermore, they are still based on very limited information. Unless we've met and hung out. I haven't read into every corner on this Internix and I haven't lived with these people. I'm nobody to rule on that. So I'll riff on this.
This is a weird place, this Internet. This communal thinking hat. I'm well aware of the idea snacking and viral inspiration that goes on our there. I feel I've had it done to me. Here's a funny thing, while we are telling the truth and on this topic and talking of these players: one of the first (and few) times I ever had an issue with bfp was wayyyy early on when I began reading her, and one day felt she was using ideas or talking about stories without attributing where she had found those stories and who had been talking about those ideas! (I don't mean something as general and big as the current discussion; I mean a smaller idea for a post or paragraph of a post and I don't say this to weaken her "case," because a point is a point is a point and her point remains; because I'm not here to argue for or against anyone's case, and because I'd rather underline the complexities of this whole idea than the obvious and blocky plots. At least for a moment.) Why didn't I start beef about it? The same reason I don't generally start beef over the issue online. I'll get to that.
A specific, blatant and visual example of an instance where I felt my idea(s) was stolen/riffed on/used without attribution was Huffington Post (it wasn't the last time). I had finished designing the multi-paper look of LatinaLista.net. At the time, Huffington post was just one, aqua colored newspaper model. When I made latinalista.net, I made the front page a newspaper (ala Huffpost or rather, ala A Newspaper) but then I made every section of that newspaper a different color-coding. Each one had its own damn stylesheet. That was my idea. Marisa's idea was that the paper would have different sections. As I am a person who color codes everything from his college note-taking to his wire-organizational system, I naturally thought that people should immediately know that they are on a different section of the newspaper. Marisa liked the idea. And so I made her site that way. On May 22, 2007, I linked to it and said "Watch this one, she won't be happy with a small corner of the net."
I don't think it was quite a week later when Huffington Post changed their design to the multicolored paper it is now. I even made a grafik as soon as I saw it, I was so blown over. Here it is, though I never posted it. And again, I'll get to why I don't often make a big deal out of these perceived thefts.
Now, of course they had the front page newspaper style first! And no, they didn't echo every single color I used. But they did switch to a multi format, multi color newspaper after I made Marisa's blog in that fashion.
(Don't worry! I know this is not the same thing as BFP vs. the State of Marcotte, 2008. I'm riffing, as I said. It's not a cover tune)
Of course sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes you reference ideas or borrow them when you feel it is understood. I see "White Lens" float around with no link. Some friends do it because in our circle, it's understood where that phrase came from. Some do it...maybe for other reasons! Maybe they don't even know where they read it. I'm sure I've spun off friends' ideas. Sometimes this is intentional (M sez "Nez, please make a Wite-Magik Attak for when someone says this") and sometimes, I'm sure, I just forget what initially spurred my creative process, the seeds of which might even move below my radar.
So sometimes you do this consciously with blogmig@s and if you are like me at all, sometimes you just read a sentence and it's the right time of the morning and something lights up in your head and you shut off your browser and write five or ten pages of something tengentially-related but which had been brewing in your mind for ages. But you are used to doing this as an artist. I know people (used to hang with them in nyc) who hate Trent Reznor to this day, and they say it is because they were on the industrial circuit when he rose up, and they claim that all he did was meld a lot of ideas already on the scene that were coming to fruition or being exemplified by (still-)unknown peers, and he brought them into the spotlight and got all the credit. And I say...but isn't he brilliant!!!? And I say, isn't that the case with any "star," who is (after all) but a symbol and fount and spigot through which the heart and howls of humanity are channeled? And I'm not sure they even grudgingly concede that. So what means what? It can depend on where you are standing, or how close to the PA system.
Sometimes you click links in a story to read further, but you stack the new pages up for ten stories and then you are done with the stories and you read all the pages you've opened and then you write a post on the eleventh page into that stack and by the time you get there, you have NO idea where you first found the page. (Wouldn't a cool software app be one that kept a record of breadcrumbs for you? So maybe you could click a button on your page and see what pages led you to find that? How long before a third-party software developer reads this graf and starts the project?)
I've seen ideas that I was sure came from my blog in many places. (And even from my published work and art). And as I've told you, I don't make issues about it generally. Why? The problem with bringing beef behind this charge has a few parts, and especially when we speak of the online world.
The internet is a place that insulates you from human contact in a few ways, no matter how many threads you travel or how many avatars you relate to or how many bloggers you blogroll. And in this lack of human contact there remains a vast amount of space for the projection of yourself, which is (of course) directly related to the narcissistic quality of so much writing and focus on the Internet. I mean, hell. Even being presumptuous enough to devote daily time to your own damn blog is pretty narcissistic if you ask me. (But very American, it seems!) :) Don't get me wrong. I don't see ego as the only driving force behind having a blog. I also see much need for socialization, as well as many honorable and admirable motivations.
My point is that it is easy to see your writing or your blog inspiring many things...who knows if that's the case? Maybe you even forgot where you first got the idea! Might the suspicion be your own projection? A long-standing feeling of not getting your due? A sneaking arrogance that your ideas are so good everyone wants them and can get them no other place? An underlying notion that everyone around you is a thief and out go take from you or get you? Do you really know what percentage is their action and what amount is your own psychology?
That's part of why I often choose to err on the side of sanity. Rather than imagine all the instances I see of intellectual theft are just that. It's too dangerous to begin following that tickling sensation everywhere it might go. You can't really know where the line falls between what you see or think and what you imagine out here. (And sometimes it's really not important even if true! So what! You inspired people! Smile and go on your way knowing you just helped the world's dialogue in some way.)
I actually am writing a story—maybe it's a short story, maybe a short film, maybe both—about this, taken to the extreme. It's a comedy about a person who makes things happen everywhere at any time just by writing about it in his blog. He begins by first seeing that everything he writes about effects people. You can see the potential for humor. We all know we have this thought. "Oh my GOD! Obama reads my blog! I said that SAME thing four days ago!!!" And this megalomaniacal tendency is exacerbated and fed by the very real possibility that your delusions are correct once in a while! I have even thought of telling you, my readers, about this story many times. But I have not. Do you know why? Honestly. Because I know someone will take it. I swear thats true.
The Internet is a vast feeding pool for all creative types. It's a nightmare for anyone truly worried about not being credited or losing first dibs on an idea. If you are one of these people, then you may have to withhold the development of your favorite ideas. or even stop pouring all your time and energy into this maw. Shut off the Internet and write. By yourself, to yourself, for yourself. Don't take that as a lecture! Or if you do, know that it is a mantra I give myself. After all, do you really have any doubt that comedy writers and news makers and those stuck on a chapter ending don't read us SOLELY for the purpose of taking our ideas, for bending their quivering nostrils, now stuffed full with the must and dust of deadline and dogmatic thinking, for a quick sniff of zeitgeistic wakeup?
Understand, please, that I am talking about a few things at once. Yes, there is the racial/class/power differential intellectual theft "big picture," which I've already touched on and given my thoughts on. There is the personal blogmetatastic situation on which I've said I can rule no further than how I already have earlier in this post. And now I'm going off in other directions about the Internet and about writing and about people and psychology and society and the weave that IS the very behavior of this thing.
I don't write most of my best stuff here, you know? Either the ideas I want to keep to myself are not fit for primetime, or because I know if I do, I'll see variations on them soon. And that brings me to my final, though by no means summary or all inclusive, point.
One of the Internet's strongest point, one thing I've always LOVED about this collection of humans writing and thinking and talking so publicly and every day: It is a conversation that nobody owns except for a brief moment and never entirely; one that grows and morphs and tumbles on multiple levels using vast stores of education and experience that can never be confined fully or properly footnoted, lest the stack of attribution overwhelm the content or the need for accurate and inarguable citation overtake the time needed to post it at all.
But....since it is true that nobody owns this conversation, I suppose that is also why it is easy to get upset and can feel utterly offensive when someone takes a chunk and goes out into the world to "own" it. Without apparent attribution to the places wherein the conversation, by many peoples' accounts, first blossomed, or was generally known to blossom well. Especially when this behavior echoes age old thefts.
Maybe this theft has taken place exactly as described by the fiercest denouncers. If so, trust that this knowledge will play out now in the minds and consciousness of those who need to understand why that is wrong. It will do so quicker, the sooner they are no longer forced to keep thier guards raised and can turn energy inward to introspection (which is a vulnerable experience and generally somewhat incompatible with fighting off attack).
Maybe the theft has not occurred so simply as stated by Marcotte's fiercest denouncers. Maybe the focus will soon return to the original and I hope still central issue, the one that bfp so regularly champions as well as the one that Marcotte agrees is important for feminists to take on. Maybe it is most important that this conversation be brought up and furthered in every place it can be. How much of that conversation focuses on intellectual theft/exploitation of non-whites by whites (or of less-powerful by more-powerful) and how much focuses on the need for Feminism to take on the immigration issue as a primary cause I can not and will not rule on. Clearly both conversations, at certain moments, can be invaluable.
So that's what I have to say about all that.