Things You Need to Stop Doing on the Internet Part I: Plagiarizing Instead of Being Inspired

Today’s post is part one in a series we’re doing about things we all do.  On the internet.  That need to stop.  Today’s topic?  Knowing when not to copy another’s work. Got an idea for this series you’d like us to write about? That “Leave a reply” button is all yours, babe.

Try stealing THIS photo, dude.

A little anecdote for you.

I learned the word “plagiarize” when I was in second grade.  I learned it because it was something I had done, and my mother felt the need for me to understand that plagiarism is a big deal – illegal, actually.  And to be clear, I had very intentionally stolen something that I in no way had written myself, and not because I wasn’t capable of writing, or because I hadn’t done the assignment and needed something to submit. No, I stole because I really, really liked it.

It was a poem my older brother was working on memorizing as a fourth grade class assignment.  He would walk around the house reciting it, and it wasn’t long before I knew it by heart, too.  So, when my own assignment came to write an original story, I knew that the poem would be such a good fit. I eagerly wrote it down, and made a few additions of my own.

My teacher, of course, loved it. She was very impressed, so much so that she asked me point-blank, “Did you write this?”.  I told her I had, because 1.) It was in my handwriting, so I had written it, and 2.) I had made the additions, see, so it was my work. She told me it was very, very good, and even had me take it down to the first graders to read it during their story time.  She called my mother to tell her I could be published.  My mom knew me a little better, and knew to be a little more skeptical.  It wasn’t long before the truth came out, and it was embarrassing all around.  I will never forget the apology letter I wrote to my teacher (on Babysitters’ Little Sister stationary, FYI), and how nervous and ashamed I was handing it to her across her desk.

So yes, for me, plagiarism has very strong emotional associations of, “No! Bad! Don’t do it!”.  Still, plagiarism hits another nerve for me as someone who tries very hard to be original.  The internet today – with its Google Images and Pinterest and Etsy – can easily take every good idea you’ve ever had and make it widely accessible to anyone.

And don’t get me wrong, that’s often a good thing.  It’s quite possible that someone who has never met me is reading this (holla at me in the comments, don’t be shy!), and that’s thrilling.  That’s the 21st century.

Pinterest and its friends do wonderful things, and being inspired to make something is not bad.  I’m not saying you should never copy something you see on the internet; tutorials are, well, tutorials, after all.  My days as a theatre student were littered with the phrase, “You’re only as good as who you steal from,” and there’s a lot of truth to that.  We probably have never encountered a truly “original” idea, and a site dedicated to the sharing of ideas can be an incredible resource for creativity.

But what happens when we come across something that we just love so much, and we want it for a photo collage we’re making, and we just can’t believe someone would charge $30 for a print of it and dangit, all we have to do is crop out that watermark and it’s perfect?  Just there for the taking.

You walk away is what.  Every good idea you see came from someone who is probably very proud of that idea.  And they are likely using that creativity to help support their family, or themselves, or even just support their own self-esteem.

Aight, this post is getting all kinds of preachy, and I think you get the point I’m trying to make here, but let me leave with one last (super soapbox-y) point before I offer some solutions: I firmly believe that what I create helps define who I am.  Were I to choose to present or use another person’s work as my own, I fail to do that.  I would know less and less what I believe and stand for, and eventually I would lose the foundations of who I am.

The antidote:

Do.  Do things of your own thinking. Create for yourself.  The more you do it, the more you will realize you’ve got a lot of great ideas, too. And the more you will realize how much work goes into creating something original. So then, on those occasions when something really is so wonderful to you, you will be all the more willing to back up that love with appropriate support to its originator.  Sometimes that will mean money, sure, but more often than not it’s just citing things properly.  Reach out to that artist/writer/crafter/photographer and let them know how much you like what they’re doing, and tell them about what you would like to do with their work.  Cooperate. Collaborate. But don’t steal.

#hashtagwhat?: Thoughts on Hashtags for Those Who Don’t Understand Them


#hashtags Love em'? Hate em? Confused by them?
#hashtags Love em’? Hate em? Confused by them?

Quick! Tell me in one sentence the purpose and function of hashtags in social media!  You have 10 seconds! Go!

…Did you?  If so, congratulations! You’ve just determined that this post isn’t for you.  Head on over to Tracey’s great cupcake rant and make yourself some Cinnamon Toast Cupcakes, stat.

The rest of you, make yourselves comfortable.

When this blog was still just a twinkle in our eyes, Tracey, Erika, and I were floating ideas of what to write about.  I’m sure you can guess what came up again and again: “#”.

That tiny tic-tac-toe board that raises so many questions. What are they?  How are they used? Who gets these things? What follows is a (completely unqualified, see blog title) crash course on the evolution of the hashtag.

First things first.  Near as I can gather, hashtags were originally designed as a way of joining an ongoing conversation, and that usage is certainly the easiest to understand.  Everyone watching the 11:00 am rerun of What Not to Wear could suddenly find each other and talk about how Carmindy hasn’t aged a day in ten years; all it takes is “#WNTW”.  Similarly, hashtags can be a useful way to “file” tweets and instagrams and such. All the photos you posted and tagged with “#sarahsdreamtriptoitaly2015” are now easily grouped together.

Soon, certain “labels” began popping up frequently, for example the extremely common “#nofilter” . (To the uninitiated, this is an instagram hashtag that indicates the photo was uploaded without giving it a signature instagram filter.) I personally believe that this is about when the hashtag really started getting cah-razy.  See, these labels were more than the hashtags that came before them.  They were not a means to join a conversation as much as the hashtag itself was a conversation point of its own.  In other words, you weren’t trying to connect with other people who wanted to talk about not using filters, or who had shared the “no filter” experience with you.  You weren’t labeling that photo so you could keep track of which photos had been taken without a filter.  You were using the hashtag to make a point, and to make that point in the most abbreviated way possible.Some other examples: “#500followers”, “#commentplease”, “#latergram”.

So by this point, hashtags are not just a supplement to our communication outlets, they are a communication medium unto themselves, which is, in turn, talking about its parent medium. It is all so very meta.  I think when most people express their frustration with hashtags, they are mentally citing times when hashtags have been used with no apparent purpose.  You know what I’m talking about: oddly specific or excessively long hashtags, communicating entirely in hashtags, and – the cardinal sin! – hashtags on Facebook. For my purposes, we will categorize these as “hated hashtags”.

So what’s the missing link from the fairly tame “#latergram” to the #healwaysdoesthiswhenwearerunninglate? Here’s my theory, and you’re going to just have to hang with me through this, but please, please do: I think it’s Baudrillard.  As in, simulacra and simulation.
“What the wha?!” is what you just said in your brain, probably, and that’s okay.  I wouldn’t be talking about this if I didn’t think it fit, like, perfectly, though.

Jean Baudrillard was (among other things) a cultural theorist of the postmodern persuasion.  He introduced the notion of simulacra, or “copies that depict things that had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.” (Taken from Wikipedia, btw.) The example that I first learned for this was artificial cherry flavoring.  If we stop and think about cherry-flavored anything, we realize it has little to do with the “reality” that bears its same name. Furthermore, artificial cherry flavoring is so much more prevalent that real cherries that it is entirely conceivable that someone should taste a real cherry and determine it tastes nothing like cherries.

Hated hashtags are simulacra.  They communicate something that either never existed, or their origin is so convoluted it might as well not have existed.  But why do we keep using them? If they are entirely nonsensical, why not dismiss them entirely?

Culturally we are masters of nostalgia.  We LOVE nostalgia. We generate lists of things that prove we were children in the 90s. We watched every VH1 special on every decade we could and then happily tuned in to get nostalgic over the week we had just lived on “Best Week Ever”. We got so moony over a tv show that we generated $5.7 million of our own hard-earned money just to have the thing back.

And with hated hashtags, we can manufacture our own nostalgia.  We create the illusion that what we are talking about is somehow hearkening back to something that existed before, and we are using the hashtag to create that link. Complicit to this illusion is the fact that hashtags were once and still are used for that purpose, but these hated hashtags only serve as a simulacra of that activity.  And what is more powerful than an emotional connection to what we create?

Ultimately, though, we (and I mean the mid-20 and older set) just aren’t really meant to “get” hashtags.  They are learned language for us, while the young crowd speaks it intuitively. Here is a really fascinating article that warns how little we understand the extent of what hashtags and the programs that use them mean to this upcoming generation.

TL/DR version? Hashtags are the symbol of a generation’s communication, and there’s no easy way to explain what they are.  At least not for me.  You can still hate hashtags if you want, but perhaps now it is a more informed hatred.  And maybe you feel better equipped to use them.  Either way, thanks for #reading.