Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox

Internet use, fandom practices, and digital labor are this post’s context for how students may interpret plagiarism. This is a speculative and sincere series of mini-attempts at grasping an alternate point of view. Most of us, including our students, use Facebook, twitter, blogs, visit aggregators and Wikipedia, and so on—enough to consider it a shared backdrop of our lives, and for us all to be both users and “content providers.” We spend time in virtual worlds participating in quests and economies. We build aspects of those worlds (Second Life’s sandbox), play in them off-line (cosplay), rewrite (fanfic), and even adapt and distribute (scanlation). The everyday interactions of digital and participatory culture make the unattributed sharing of ideas a norm. An insistence on receiving or giving credit violates that norm.

Digital culture is already a conversation.

Our students write a lot and most of it is a conversation: they text, post, and tweet. Writing is expected to be reciprocal, and, naturally, not everything on the screen is by you. Students are primed for a mutually owned piece of writing.

We are all content providers now.

We work for free for Facebook, Reddit, and Fark.We put our ideas there, and the sites’ values increase. We collaborate with others—often unknowingly. We adapt ideas. Ours are adapted. Single authorship is a rarity. Our work is part of the vast bricolage of the web. If we do not own our words and images, how should we attribute the ownership of others?

Mashup or patchwork?

A new song almost instantly morphs into YouTube parodies and mashups. There’s no need to credit the original because everyone (who matters) already knows. It’s an act of creation—not plagiarism.The transformation is theirs, but no one claims they created it from scratch.Students frequently overestimate their readers’ (us) contextual knowledge and assume we know what they are using. We see unacknowledged source; they see obvious use of an idea that surely their prof has encountered. We see patchwriting where students intend a mashup where all parts are recognized.

The author is dead;long live the virus.

A successful mashup goes viral.Memes self-replicate and spread from host to host.No one is the author.Our culture is a petri dish, not the digital social network we imagine.It’s not for nothing that we say “viral”—we’re just patient zero, not the author.Ideas, to students, can seem equally ownerless and random in their origin and spread. Their paper is just another host as the idea spreads.

Look what I found!

Ironically, given that likes, shares, and retweets are the validation of an idea, the originator is often left in the dust.We display what we find at Pinterest with no intent of claiming it as ours. It’s obvious we are showing something we found—not that we made. Often, we have no meaningful source since we received the idea at 20th hand! And trying to retain ownership of a meme or a joke—what could be sillier? There are sites that ask for pingbacks, credits, or some acknowledgement of the labor, but in general we do not know who the originator is to acknowledge them. We may be more likely to acknowledge the most recent finder (the “via” or “shared from”) and reward those who find and share the most interesting material.

Look what we can do!

Many digital enterprises are collaborative. When we crowdsource, we pick the collective brain for an answer, build a project together, sign a petition, bankroll a creative project, donate to cover vet bills—we achieve the goal. Being anonymous is the default reward—we must opt in or name ourselves for public acknowledgement. Crowdsourcing may be dismissed (as slactivism for example), but it’s also a validation of social good, an acknowledgement that our collective work, while valuable, is not for individual kudos.To say “I built it” would be an unseemly taking of collective credit for oneself.

Live, work, play in our sandbox

The participatory culture of fandom has percolated throughout digital culture such that sharing others’ creativity / intellectual property is a norm. It may be an involuntary collaboration on the part of the originator, but, to fan participants, there is a qualitative difference between participatory culture practices such as fanfic, cosplay, or scanlation, and that of “sharing” through BitTorrent or piracy. A fan’s digital labor and creation are involved and value is accrued. When we labor on something, we feel a sense of possession. The work we have transformed feels partly ours—a fanfic story, a meticulously re-created costume, or hours spent scanning and translating a manga—these did not exist before. Those involved in participatory culture do recognize that someone else has created the text/world, and that they are, as fanfic writers often say, playing in someone else’s sandbox, but the creator no longer has the final say over their creation. Students may see a paper as a transformative work—they can say the end result is theirs while simultaneously agreeing that aspects of it were not created by them.

Our digital culture students are not unwarranted in seeing plagiarism as an alien, even unreasonable, idea, and an insistence on citing and acknowledging is old-school and territorial.

Why would anyone even think the content we include is our own?

Suggested reading:

Scholz,Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as PlaygroundandFactoryNew York: Routledge, 2012. 

Image on front page by USFS Region 5 via Flickr


I love your perspective of online idea sharing as the norm, rather than something immediately viewed as plagiarism. I honestly don't think I've ever interpreted something I shared online as plagiarizing, and I think many students only give credit if they "took" the idea from someone they know personally (or, more likely, someone that they know will see what they "copied"). The line certainly blurs between the validation of the idea and the stealing of the idea, as most online profiles are made up of non-original ideas that somehow still convey an "original self." This becomes the norm because, as you say, why would anyone think the content we include is our own? Also, posting things without giving credit to the original author can sometimes be used as a way to see who else is "in"-for instance, someone recognizing movie quotes/song lyrics/the original story modified in fan fiction/etc., without attribution, shows that the poster and the reader have similar interests, and creates online community building. On the other hand, though the online community is still participatory, collaborative, and at times one big "mashup," we do live in a world where many young people are obsessed with online fame. I have seen a larger insurgence of people demanding credit for their YouTube videos, their short stories, etc., which suggests that maybe the "insistence on receiving credit" no longer violates the norm as much as the insistence on giving credit. Thanks for this post, and it will be interesting to see how this topic evolves.

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