Plagiari — who cares?

The Internet is a great place full of sharing ideas, collectively learning and collaborating on a large scale. I don’t just mean when two Youtube artists meet online and then make a song together, or when you and your friends come up with a great new way to make pizza or download music.

I mean the 644 million (just in March 2012) websites that, overall, move us towards more knowledge, creativity and growth as a society.

We can feel this collaborative resource every time we do research for a blog post, a research paper or just for the hell of it. Tiny bits from different corners of the web come together to form our mind’s contents.

But how does that affect our own writing and creating?

In a more connected and collaborative online community, inspiration is inevitable — and is a good thing. But shouldn’t we still value, cherish and seek originality?

Some think we shouldn’t. Curtis Brown argues here that plagiarism will eventually not only not bother us, but become the norm:

As went sodomy and marijuana, so goeth plagiarism; its semantic neighborhood is gentrifying, so to speak. Future readers will find the idea of a writer being disgraced for plagiarism quaintly outrageous, much as we today find the idea of a writer being disgraced for obscenity. Sure, there will be a few originality fetishists left over from the old days, and they’ll have their little clubs and user groups or whatever. But they’ll be about as relevant to our great-grandchildren’s media landscape as people who eschew depravity and degradation are to ours. Innovators, meanwhile, don’t fight rear-guard battles. They wait for the smoke and bullets to subside, then offer a new business model.

Already I’ve struggled with this as a writer. Even when I am actively trying to write in an original way, certain words or phrases that I’ve recently read elsewhere keep popping in to my brain as I try to explain an idea.

This concept of semi-plagiarism was first brought to my attention a couple semesters ago, in my Media Ethics class with Lois Boynton at UNC. She made us practice looking at paragraphs of text and going through a process that made sure that we first understood the idea before we tried to just re-write it — maybe using synonyms or mixing up the sentence structure a bit — but still writing without creativity and “stealing.”

Maybe my desire for originality comes from a source of pride. Marc Fisher asks here why journalists feel that the old-school rules apply to them while many other industries are loosening their own rules and accepting the collaborative environment as “a communal path toward creativity.”

Even as I write this, I find myself linking out, quoting, reading other’s ideas on the topic and feeling those ideas shape mine. I’m even encouraged to do that by my professor who assigns these blog posts. Is this post plagiarism? Semi-plagiarism? Collaboration?

Does it matter?

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