Monday, February 18, 2013

Original Content

There was a small flare-up over the weekend involving a gambling news website called iGaming Post being accused of various ethical transgressions regarding their peculiar manner of reporting news.

Some had noticed previously how the site -- which bills itself as “The Internet Newspaper for the Gambling Industry” and appears under the International Gaming Awards aegis -- often lifts articles verbatim from other news sites, republishing them without attribution and sometimes even with different by-lines. In other words, the recent brouhaha isn’t really a new thing, although the latest round of accusations appear to have finally gotten the attention of a number of poker media types.

For details, see John Mehaffey’s article from yesterday chronicling several examples of iGaming Post’s thievery. Mehaffey describes what the site has done as “plagiarism.” Others are using terms like “content theft” or “copyright infringement,” but it all amounts to the same offense. Stealing! With both hands!

There are quite a few of these “portal”-type sites publishing pieces about poker and/or gambling that operate in a similar fashion. Some follow iGaming Post’s brazen cut-and-paste method. Others use “scraper” programs to lift material off sites and republish it on their own. And some involve a person performing a few minor edits such as changing a word or two here and there or reordering paragraphs in order to fool the Google gods into thinking the post is something new.

As someone who has published lots of “original content” on the web, including here on my personal blog and on a number of other sites (most of which have been poker-related), stories such as this one obviously grab my attention. Having a background that has included teaching thousands of college students how to write essays further positions me to want to say something here as well.

Do I have anything original to say? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But I feel reasonably comfortable claiming all of these words and ideas about the matter as having emanated from my own jingle-brain.

In my composition classes I always considered learning how to incorporate other sources into one’s own writing as what distinguished “college writing” from whatever students might have studied before. Getting students to understand when to quote (or paraphrase or summarize), how to quote (and cite), and also how to sort out their own thoughts and words from others’ were always, to me, primary goals in such classes, lessons that had to be learned before writers could figure out how to communicate meaningfully with an audience.

And, of course, understanding what plagiarism was and avoiding it at all costs was part of the instruction, too. No compromises, there. (And no points if you plagiarized.)

The internet isn’t a college classroom, though. Notions of “originality” or “authorship” get complicated on the web. The stark distinctions a teacher might make on a college writing assignment about quoting and citing and penalties for failing to document properly are essentially out of place here.

In fact, a lot of what passes for “original content” say, on a poker news site, tends to stretch the definition of “original,” with the great majority of articles and even features mostly consisting of material that has been rewritten in some fashion or another.

Yesterday Barry Carter wrote another interesting post talking about the practice of “newsjacking” in poker media wherein someone might produce genuinely “original content” by writing a piece that responds to a current item of interest. An example he gave was writing a post last week sharing his initial thoughts about the new WSOP schedule, something I, too, did here at Hard-Boiled Poker.

Despite the confrontational sound of the term (and hard-to-ignore connotations of theft it suggests), “newsjacking” is in fact a lot like writing a college essay in which one has been asked to use sources and respond with one’s own argument regarding an issue. The idea is to inject your own interpretation or analysis, referring to what others have said (and citing appropriately) while positioning your own self within a kind “conversation” about your chosen topic.

But again, on the web, ideas of authorship and even the relationship between the self and others often get fuzzy. Thus does “newsjacking” often become more like carjacking with a writer aggressively taking someone else’s words and ideas and going for a joyride, heedless of the ethical responsibilities of “owning one’s writing.”

I have to admit that after dwelling for so many years within the internet’s echo chamber, I find it difficult to get too animated when hearing about another lame site like iGaming Post distinguishing itself by its lack of originality. That said, I’m glad they’ve been called out, and hope perhaps it does a little to discourage others from being too easily tempted by the treacherous two-step of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V.

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