Remix Everything: BuzzFeed and the Plagiarism Problem

BuzzFeed has built a lucrative business on organizing the internet's confusing spectacle into listicles easily comprehended by even the most numbed office workers. But the site's approach to all content as building blocks for viral lists puts it in an awkward position in relation to internet etiquette and journalistic ethics.

Internet culture wonks have been hashing over an article by Slate's Farhad Manjoo that revealed BuzzFeed's popular lists are often not original flashes of viral genius. Many are highly derivative rip-offs from other sites, cleaned up and reproduced without crediting their sources. Most commonly, Manjoo found, ideas for listicles first appear on social news site Reddit, or lesser aggregators. For example, the BuzzFeed listicle "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity," appears to be an almost exact replica of a couple of posts on an obscure site called Nedhardy: "7 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity" and "13 Pictures to Help You Restore Your Faith In Humanity." BuzzFeed slapped together many of the same pictures, presented it as an original idea, and it went Avian-Flu-level-viral, ending up with more than seven million page views.

While BuzzFeed has assembled "serious" sections of traditional journalists reporting on technology, fashion and politics, it's the lists and viral video scavenging that bring in the most traffic.

This has set off some chin-scratching over whether what BuzzFeed is doing is actually bad, or whether repackaging funny things found on Reddit is just how the internet works these days. (As of today, BuzzFeed seems to be giving more credit to the site, anyway.) Can you really rip off the idea of putting cheesy feel-good pictures in a list? Some say BuzzFeed's failure to cite the sources of ideas for its listicles is simply an example of "bad nettiquette."

But if failing to cite memes found on Reddit is bad netiquette, what is lifting whole sentences from IMDB? After reading Manjoo's article, I dipped into the BuzzFeed archives and found they're filled with passages copied from other outlets with no credit. Consider the output of BuzzFeed senior editor Matt Stopera. Stopera's one of BuzzFeed's most popular editors; he makes regular appearances on Headline News and was the subject of a Businessweek profile, which lauded his ability to assemble massively viral lists at lightning speed. "It suggests somebody has cracked a code," wrote Businessweek.

A key part of that code is copying and pasting chunks of text into lists without attribution. For example Stopera's "13 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Movie 'Clueless" is comprised almost solely of sentences copied from the IMDB trivia page for Clueless, with no sign that they are anything but his own words.

Stopera:

9. During the game of "Suck and Blow" the cast was unable to sustain the breath to make a real credit card pass from mouth to mouth; a prop card made of cardboard was substituted that still did not work. Holes were drilled into it to make it easier, and when this failed also, the whole cast's lips were heavily coated in chapstick to force the card to stick.

IMDB:

During the game of "Suck and Blow" the cast was unable to sustain the breath to make a real credit card pass from mouth to mouth; a prop card made of cardboard was substituted that still did not work. Holes were drilled into it to make it easier, and when this failed also, the whole cast's lips were heavily coated in chapstick to force the card to stick.

It's the same with "33 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the 'Toy Story,' Trilogy" and "12 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Movie 'Home Alone.'"

Stopera doesn't just lift from IMDB. A 2011 post "26 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Elizabeth Taylor," is cribbed from a number of sources.

Stopera:

15. Her romantic life began at 17, when she became engaged to all-American football hero, Glenn Davis. Then came a second engagement, to William Pawley, son of a U.S. ambassador to Brazil.

Reuters Fact Box:

Her romantic life began at 17, when she became engaged to all-American football hero, Glenn Davis. Then came a second engagement, to William Pawley, son of a US ambassador to Brazil.

Stopera:

25. She was born covered in hair. Elizabeth was born suffering from the condition hypertrichosis, a rare disease that leaves the victim with a thick, dark coat of hair. Luckily the hair fell off within a matter of days.

Oolalavintage:

Did you know Elizabeth Taylor was born covered in hair? That's right; Hollywood's most enduring beauty was born suffering from the condition hypertrichosis, a rare disease that leaves the victim with a thick, dark coat of hair. Luckily for Elizabeth and the world, the hair fell off within a matter of days to reveal her unique beauty.

Then there's 2010's 38 Facts About Reborn Dolls, which basically just transforms the sentences of this 2008 Today.com article into a list, again with no credit.

(Note, some of these may have had credit added to them since we published this post.)

After seeing this, I was ready to brand Stopera with the big P-word. But the story of the older media outlet accusing the upstart of parasitism is sadly familiar: Gawker's been at the receiving end for years. There was the time Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira wrote his screed "How Gawker Ripped Off My Newspaper Story," complaining that a post had 'stolen' all the good parts of his story with little credit, and then-editor Gabriel Snyder's eloquent response. Playboy got pissed over a post where we quoted liberally from a Playboy article about a horny weatherman.

As the accusations against Gawker showed a tin ear against how the internet works, the label of plagiarism seems anachronistic in the case of a listicle. Stopera's lifting is the result of an extreme aggregation logic that approaches words as just another form of content, to be remixed and copied without worrying about their source. The whole internet is trending in this direction: The top story on Reddit on any given day is likely to be some image scanned from a newspaper, a quote misattributed to Ghandi, or a Youtube video of a '90s cartoon.

But BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who joined BuzzFeed from Politico last December, said he's moving the site away from this free-for-all approach: "[BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti] started BuzzFeed as a tech company and a kind of a content laboratory, and initially had a heavy aggregation focus," he wrote in an email. "They were moving toward more traditional standards of sourcing when I got here, but I certainly have made those traditional reportorial standards a lot clearer."

And Stopera has been more careful about sourcing since Smith became EIC of BuzzFeed. Two recent lists, "10 Things You Might Do While High on Bath Salts" and "14 Things You Need to Know About Drinking Hand Sanitizer" cite sources amply.

"Matt is one of the great Internet originals, as I think is pretty clear from the body of his work," Smith said.

Remix Everything: BuzzFeed and the Plagiarism Problem

But the practice does reflect something that's bugged me for a while about BuzzFeed and the Reddit-Tumblr-4chan matrix from which its list-compiling side springs: The explosion of people happily sharing images and text completely void of context. There's a stupid disinterest in the story behind whatever shiny internet thing has gone viral now, as if knowing more would ruin the mysterious viralness of the thing. BuzzFeed has, either knowingly or accidentally, capitalized on this by obscuring the origins of its lists—both facts taken from old-school journalistic sources, and ideas found among newfangled meme-creators. Certainly, a clean list free of links and credits heightens the impact, makes it more of a black box.

The best argument against this context-free viral culture actually comes from that goddamn "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity" list. The first picture in the list is a "picture of Chicago Christians who showed up at a gay pride parade to apologize for homophobia in the Church," according to the caption. But the real story is more complicated, and not so uplifting.

The Christians apologizing are members of a group called The Marin Foundation, run by Andrew Marin. Marin's an evangelical Christian who claims to be trying to create a bridge between gays and Christians. But Marin refuses to say homosexuality is not a sin, and critics argue he's disingenuously using the LGBT angle to boost his own profile. You would never learn that from the list, which includes only a link to the website of the photographer who took the picture, added only after it went viral.

BuzzFeed just hired Metro Weekly's Chris Geidner, one of the best reporters on LGBT issues in the country. Maybe he could do a story about it.