Though everyone seems to think they know what plagiarism is, there are shady areas in the process of citation and attribution that can not only confuse writers and bloggers, but also create sources of tension. Previously I addressed what might or might constitute plagiarism of another blogger’s work and Briana wrote on the topic of stealing images, which many bloggers do, despite a widespread understanding among bloggers that one does not simply steal another person’s words.
Interestingly, despite the seemingly widespread image theft in the book blogosphere, bloggers tend to advocate for a stricter definition of plagiarism than is accepted even in academia. When one writes in academia, the common metaphor used is that of a person entering a conversation; one person writes an article, then another person responds. The initial author may then write back. Other voices will probably join in. And all of these voices are also constantly referring back to even older voices, citing scholars from the past or authors long dead. In the book blogosphere, however, this type of conversation is frequently shut down on the basis of “plagiarism.” That is, book bloggers often seem to feel that if they post about a topic, they now have proprietary rights to it. Because they wrote about how to balance blogging and life, for example, no other blogger can write about the blogging and life balance because they decided to write about it first.
Before we go any further, let me assure you that I detest plagiarism. It is unacceptable to steal another person’s work or idea and pretend it is your own. It is not an act without consequences, even if you make no money from what you did. You have still victimized someone. You may have even caused them a loss in profits or in followers. Imagine someone taking a photograph they want to sell as an exclusive print–but then it’s posted all over the Internet by bloggers who think they can do so because their blog is just a hobby and they get nothing from it. Now the print is no longer exclusive and the artist lost his or her livelihood. Plagiarism is sloppy at best, criminal at worst.
Speaking about broad topics, however, is not plagiarism. Just as more than one person can write a review for the same book, so can more than one person chime in to the conversation on a general topic. Not allowing others to speak on a topic we have addressed is counterproductive, even dangerous. Imagine the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A blogger writes that The Legend of Korra should be banned because the protagonist is bisexual.
- A blogger writes that they are glad Agent Carter has been cancelled because they’re sick of the PC-police forcing us to have female leads on television.
- A blogger writes that children should not be allowed to watch Disney princess movies because they are “anti-feminist.”
In academia, scholars would respond to these arguments and broaden our understanding of tolerance and of the importance of the media in promoting equality. They might begin interesting discussions about what “feminism” is. The original blogger who dislikes Disney princesses might think you can’t be a feminist if you get married. Perhaps the responses would argue that feminism encompasses the choices of all women, even those who wish to have a traditional romance and marriage.
In the book blogosphere, however, unusually strict definitions of plagiarism might mean that the original writers ask other bloggers not to respond. Talking about sexuality and feminism in The Legend of Korra or in Agent Carter is “their thing.” They thought to do it first, so now no one else is allowed to broach these topics. But do we really want one voice to control the conversation? What happens when we shut down discourse on the basis of “plagiarism”–a definition of plagiarism that even a university would not recognize?
Opening the conversation to a wide array of voices can only be beneficial. No perspective is entirely unbiased and the way a white middle-class woman raised in the suburbs responds to a topic may be very different from the way a woman of color raised in the city responds. Allowing different perspectives to interact with and respond to each other not only broadens our understanding of the topic but can also help us become more empathetic individuals. Would the average white American ever have recognized the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement if Black voices had not been raised and spoken to the lived experiences of Black Americans? How could a white American begin to understand another perspective if that perspective continues to be silenced?
Of course, in many ways the conversations book bloggers have tend to be of lower stakes. Trying to claim the sole right to talk about when to comment on a blog or how often to schedule posts is not the same as silencing minority voices on matters of representation. However, shutting down small conversations still creates an unnecessary power dynamic where one person becomes the interpreter of what it is acceptable to do and not do to on a blog. And shutting down small conversations can lead us to shutting down larger conversations. Bloggers often speak about diversity in books and media, for example, because we recognize that representation matters. But why should one person get to arbitrate what counts as fair or equal representation? Are we comfortable with one voice speaking for us all?
If we want to engage in interesting conversations, if we want to create knowledge together, if we want to ensure that previously silenced voices now receive representation, we need to open up our dialogue. We need to embrace those who respond to us; those who challenge us; those who show us ways in which our ideas can be extended, adapted, and modified. We need to talk.