Before I get too ahead of myself, here is what happened:
December 19, 2011: Zack writes a satirical Christmas letter to Santa, and publishes it on our mutual friend Mike’s website, The Inclusive.
Sometime between December 2011 and November 2013: A Reddit user finds page one of said letter and posts it without attribution to the original source.
November 29, 2013: A German windsurfer going by the handle Gequeoman finds the letter on Reddit, and tweets the one-page picture.
December 1, 2013: The Huffington Post publishes Gequeoman’s tweet, as well as some commentary along the lines of, “Oh, kids these days…”
December 2, 2013: Tweet, and letter, go viral, showing up on multiple media sites in a matter of hours.
So what’s the problem here? Zack is getting recognition for his comedy, right?
All Zack’s friends and supporters were thrilled for him—I’ve known Zack since he was eighteen-years-old, and he is an incredibly dedicated, hard working, and all-around good human being. We, his friends, have known for a long time that he is a brilliant comedian, and now millions of people could enjoy his humor, too! But something was wrong—a big something. Nowhere, not anywhere on any of these secondary news sites, was Zack’s name listed with the letter, nor was the original publication site posted. In fact, many of the media outlets posting the piece and commenting on it guessed that the letter was written by an actual child. On top of that, while the original piece was a full five pages long, only the first page went viral.
So, why does this matter? As one student asked me earlier this year, “Don’t people who put things on the Internet just expect people to steal it?” The answer to that, in my opinion, is a resounding “No.” The Internet does not spontaneously create content—every funny article you read, picture you see, and video you watch was created by a real live human being. It’s easy to forget this fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. In Zack’s case, he is a professional comedian in Brooklyn, and while its true that he created the letter to share his humor with readers, he also probably wrote it to get his name out there and possibly get hired to write professionally. Zack posted the letter because he had a funny idea, and wanted to share it. In the original incarnation of the letter, it was several pages long, and included Zack’s biography and contact information. Without attribution through proper citation, Zack is robbed of this recognition for his hard work.
….Because it IS hard work. Writing satire is not easy. It demands synthesizing humor, cultural themes, current events, and audience awareness in delicate balance. Zack planned, drafted, and composed the letter thoughtfully with a specific product in mind; that product clearly resonated with readers. While Zack definitely wanted people to read the letter, I’m sure he also wanted the credit for creating it--who wouldn't?
Additionally, in the letter’s original posting on The Inclusive, it was also readily apparent that the letter was a work of satire, and not actually written by a child. That matters, because it affects interpretation of the letter. On Mashable’s Watercooler blog (Mashable is a leading social media and technology site) the author of the article covering the letter stated, “While the letter's source hasn't been verified, it's not unreasonable to believe a small child wrote it.” By the time she posted the letter on Monday afternoon, that statement was already incorrect—the letter had been verified by HuffPo and Yahoo as written by a comedian, not a child, and Zack had been given credit in the corrections lines. The Mashable post is a clear example of lazy journalism, in that the writer did not do her job validating her source material. Laziness, often, goes hand-in-hand with incompetence and ignorance. I do not want any of you to ever be thought of as lazy, incompetent, or ignorant, as you move forward in your lives, and create content of your own. Is that, after all, who you really want to be?
Put yourself in Zack's situation. Would you really be okay with people taking your own original work, that you were proud of, and using it without your permission? How about without giving you credit? How about if they passed it off as their own work? Or if they felt they deserved more credit for sharing it that you did for creating it? This is the constant struggle of writers and artists working in our digital world. Students, casual users of the Internet, and even (lazy) journalists do this every single day, and it is just plain wrong. Don't contribute to the problem. Attribute the creators and sources--show those writers and artists the same respect you would want yourself. Choose to be better than the lazy way.