May 16, 2008

A Lesson for Bloggers Everywhere

You will rarely see me angrier than when my integrity is wrongly impugned. That's what happened two days ago, at the hands of another blogger, no less. Here is what transpired:

I am an anonymous contributing blogger at a particular blogging site. Recently, I wrote a rather lighthearted post about a particular item, that began with some background and then segued into my own comparison test and review. The background portion, though brief, contained numerous links. Yesterday, I received an email from someone who runs a blog with which I am only vaguely familiar:

Subject: WOW
Did you not link to any of the [her blog] stories about [broad topic of my post] for a reason? We broke half of those [broad topic of my post] stories, all copied (and naturally unattributed) by the newspapers, etc. Seriously. Wow.

I puzzled over this email for a bit. It wasn't clear to me whether she was accusing me of (a) not using her source material on a subject which she thinks she "owns;" or (b) using her source material and not crediting her with a link. At first, I thought it was (a). Although I wasn't happy to have my methods questioned, I decided to send her a diplomatic email explaining that I did not use her material:

Hi [name], thanks for your interest. The short answer to your question is "no." I read numerous stories, blog posts, press releases, etc. about the local [subject in question] shops and chains, and I cited what I thought were the most relevant ones for the specific points I was making at each link location. As I'm sure you recognize, what a blogger feels is the most relevant citation for a particular link in a blog post is not necessarily the first or even the most comprehensive story on a particular topic. Furthermore, the point of my post was a subjective [ ] test, as evidenced by the "read about the [ ] test" teaser after the first paragraph. The brief background I provided was really just to set up my visit and [ ] test. If you have been on the forefront in writing detailed stories about [broad topic of my post], good job! Since this seems to be a rich topic, I'll look forward to future stories from you.
Best regards, [my name]

After sending this email, and giving my chief editor a heads up, I started to think that the blogger was accusing me not of ignoring her source material in favor of other sources that I cited, but of the much more egregious offense of using her source material and not citing it. That's when I started to get really angry. My conclusion seemed to have been confirmed after my editor sent the woman an explanatory email, and she responded thusly to both of us:

Thanks [editor name], and to [my name] for also emailing. You know, it was a momentary lapse. I tend to just bite the bullet with bad non-linking etiquette. It bothers, but it really is fleeting. As you said, it’s so rampant, it happens all the time; it really gets me with big media. Anyway, I know it wasn’t intentional and appreciate the emails. [Then she thanks my editor for his offer to give her a future shout out]. Thanks again. Best, [her name]

So now a third possible accusation had apparently been leveled against me: that I did use her source material, but unintentionally neglected to link to her. At this point, I'm steaming mad. I send her another email and do my best to be diplomatic once again, while clarifying that I did nothing wrong:

[Her name], I'm glad we were able to clear this up. Just to close the loop, please be assured that, unlike those big media newspapers you mentioned, I always link to source material that I use for my posts, and I have no doubt that the other contributing authors at [my blog site] do the same. [My name]

She wrote back to me and my editor yesterday, thanking him for mentioning her blog in the day's post. I told my editor that she should not be rewarded for making false accusations, but that was his call.

This episode is apparently over, but it contains a few lessons for all bloggers:

1. It's crucial to link to source material that you use in your posts. Not to do so is plagiarism. Other bloggers and writers spend many hours researching and writing about their topics, and are justified in getting extremely upset when boggers steal their material without a link (preferable), citation, or hat tip. For established "big media" newspapers to steal a blogger's work product is doubly inexcusable. Such plagiarism, if significant enough, could also be a copyright violation.

2. That said, if you are going to accuse someone of stealing your source material and either intentionally or unintentionally failing to link to you, you damn well better have the evidence to back it up. A false accusation made in writing, especially on the Internet where it lasts forever, is not only extreme douchebaggery, it could be considered libel and can subject the accuser to legal action.

3. Such false accusations should not go unanswered. I try to make a friend out of a potential enemy if it's not too late. If you do not respond, the accuser will be left with the impression that she was right, and then she might take her accusations public and falsely smear your reputation. Bloggers have little else more important to protect in the blogosphere than their reputations.

4. I cannot think of a case where a blogger "owns" a topic and must be considered a source for any other story written on that topic, unless the blogger and her post are the topic of your blog post. With well over a hundred million blogs in the world, plus millions of other sources such as newspapers, magazines, books, websites, journal articles, television and radio networks and stations, corporate press releases, etc., it is delusional to think that one's blog post, no matter how brilliant, is somehow entitled to be a source for all other blog posts that might relate to the same topic.

Now please excuse me while I go calm down.

(bumper sticker image from

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At 1:35 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

Whoa! I can see this episode touched a nerve or two. I promise to never steal your stuff and you have my permission to use anything on my Blog any time you want to.

Seriously, I do appreciate the heads-up. I'm not always good about citing sources and I steal pictures with Google Image all the time.


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