Jonah Lehrer and the Question of Content Re-Utilization
I think it fair to say that, in the first decade of the 21st century the Internet marketing advice to publishers was to reuse content.
The idea was this: search engines look for great content. Publishers have lots of great content: in print, in their archives, user-generated. Leverage that content for success.
A start towards recycling content, pioneered by one of publishing’s most brilliant marketers, was to break it down into its smallest bit—a tip, a recipe, an anecdote—and make it available for free to site members or list members. Encourage list signup in return for regular access to these bits of content. And build that content into other things: stories, articles, digital magazines, books, events. At some point a critical mass is reached where the content must be paid for, in the form of special reports, white papers, or unlimited access; and fundamentally that critical mass represented a good-ish amount of those bits of content, extrapolated and explained and articulated in various content-rich formats. And the fact remained that the content bits were leaves from the vast content trees that publishers tended, presented in various ways.
A savvy publisher also leveraged these content bits through social media and content sharing to build SEO. Getting the content out there in that Xanadu of reciprocity known as Web 2.0, getting it out through blogging and article sharing and other postings, was a way to gain links, reputation, followers, audience.
Google, while not specifically forbidding the re-use of content, did and does have plenty of guidelines to indicate how it may and may not be used. You don’t use it to dupe the search engines into giving you higher rankings than you deserve, but you may use it in press releases, syndication, and marketing. And of course Google’s goals dovetail with those of a publisher: the idea is to get great content to people who are looking for exactly what the publisher has to offer. Smart publishers know how to specify canonical to avoid getting their fingers slapped for duplicate content online; they have learned how to update and revise to keep content fresh and authentic.
So the re-cycling of content remains, in many ways, a valid approach to internet publishing and marketing. And of course, neither then or now was self-plagiarism—the cutting and pasting of one’s own original work, without attribution, from one supposedly-original source to another—considered a legitimate course of action.
Still, one can’t help wondering if Jonah Lehrer, the journalist whose undoing began with the discovery of a piece in the New Yorker that used material originally published in the Wall Street Journal, was in part seduced by an internet culture that encourages using every scrap of content like a Thanksgiving turkey carcass—what doesn’t disappear at the table is made into sandwiches, turned into casseroles, boiled into soup.
Lehrer certainly made lots of other mistakes, including making things up and plagiarizing other people. And there is obviously a difference between reposting a blog and reusing content that was contracted by one publication in another publication altogether.
Google is so all-knowing, all seeing, it’s tempting to see it as a gigantic god of the internet. It knows when you’ve been bad or good. It knows if your links are bought, traded, or natural. It knows if your content is duplicate. And so do the crowd-sourced plagiarism busters who need do no more than copy lines of content, paste them into Google, and discover all the places in the online universe that content appears.
Best practices for content use on the internet can seem confusing, but they’re pretty clear. And there are plenty of safeguards in place to encourage publishers and journalists to keep their content re-utilization from crossing the line.