Aggregated assault

Whose work is it, anyway? A plea for standards.
May 9, 2012

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” Thus spake my high-school teacher, then nearing retirement, and if I remembered nothing else (besides his rampaging eyebrows and alarming amounts of nostril hair), I would not forget this. His point, at the time somewhat dispiriting, was that ideas are continually repackaged and re-presented. All these years later, surveying the (sometimes acid) reflux culture of online media, his point seems all too well taken. I daresay many are grateful for the Twitter feeds, blogs, and newsletters that pull together links to what we need to know about—and we also appreciate smart commentary about them. But sometimes a writer (or website) goes too far, hiving off huge chunks of someone else’s work and presenting them with minimal added insight, most egregriously without a nod to the original source. During a skirmish last year with Arianna Huffington, The New York Times’s Bill Keller complained, “In Somalia, this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.”

Simon Dumenco, a.k.a. the Media Guy of Advertising Age, found out what it was like to be “over-aggregated” last summer, when HuffPost reblogged his column about the Twitter tizzy over Anthony Weiner, recapitulating so much of it that only the truly obsessed would be moved to click through to the source (final tally: a whopping 57 additional page views). At the SXSW conference in March, Dumenco hosted one panel on the topic (“Is Aggregation Theft?”), announcing the creation of the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation, a nonprofit that will draft voluntary best-practice guidelines. Among the print and online editors, bloggers, and academics who’ve agreed to help: Adam Moss of New York, David Granger of Esquire, Elizabeth Spiers of The New York Observer, James Bennet of The Atlantic, Sheryl Huggins Salomon of The Root, Mark Armstrong of Longreads.com, Evan Hansen of Wired.com, former New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent, and yours truly.

Another SXSW session was convened by Maria Popova, who tweets perspicaciously as @brainpicker, proposing the addition of “Curator’s Code” symbols to text that would take readers, via a bookmarklet, back to the original source. Whether or not those doing the aggregating would actually devote the seconds necessary to adding that snippet of code, the intention is noble. Among Popova’s panelists was New York Times media gadfly David Carr, who nonetheless sounded dubious about any attempt to propose standards.

As Carr wrote in March, “You can almost hear the digerati seizing with laughter at the idea that a pew full of journalism church ladies is somehow going to do battle with the entire Internet.” But Dumenco is inviting the entire Internet to help. The council’s work will kick off with a public discussion at Internet Week in May, and then work toward a first draft by fall. “The standards are not going to be imposed, or top-down,” he explains. “They will be iterative and open for discussion.” Inspired by the online ad-edit guidelines from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the council aims for a simple, common-sense approach to what seems fair when citing the works of others. Three examples from Dumenco: “Credit original sources prominently, not just in a link at the end”; “name-check the writer if you’re riffing on his or her ideas”; and don’t quote 450 words of a 500-word post, “slap on 50 words, and call it a day.”

One benefit of Carr’s piece was that new volunteers have stepped forward to help, including the content-sharing site StumbleUpon, and, yes, The Huffington Post. Along with its Pulitzer Prize, it seems, the site is getting religion.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Oh, and “nothing new under the sun”? Turns out it comes from one of the oldest aggregated works still in circulation: the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR