CCCC07 C.26: Textual Transgressions

Collin Brooke acknowledged at the outset of this panel that there were technological difficulties coordinating this panel’s presentations, and the start of the presentations was delayed by six minutes as Collin (the chair) and others worked to overcome those difficulties. The panel’s full title was “Textual Transgressions Online: Plagiarism and Fraud in Weblogs and Wikis,” and the presenters offered a useful body of insight into the various ways that textual appropriation functions online, and how those various functions of appropriation serve to illuminate our practices and preconceptions surrounding the teaching of writing.

Clancy Ratliff’s presentation, “Negotiating and Regulating Plagiarism in Everyday Blogging Practices,” began from a personal example: her weblog, CultureCat, has been repeatedly plagiarized, in various and interesting ways. Ratliff has posted a brief recap with slides of her presentation, but I think she’s being too modest in the account she gives: as is typical of her work, her presentation was insightful, witty, and focused. The first example of weblog plagiarism she offered came to her via an email that read: “You hv posted a very kewl blog. I have stolen a few things from It just to start with my own blog.”


Ratliff investigated and didn’t see any of her own material on the blog, and surmised that her correspondent had perhaps copied some of Ratliff’s posts as magnets for blog traffic and then replaced those placeholders with original material when that traffic increased, or used — to echo Ratliff’s excellent and apropos term — plagiarism as placeholder. This strikes me as an unconventional and interesting form of appropriation of text, and something — in its apparent absence or at least mitigating of intentional deception — that usefully complicates discussions of plagiarism-as-theft. In a second instance of plagiarism, Ratliff saw a spike in referrer traffic from a hotlinked image in a detailed post she’d written about an ideal first-year composition course designed around the theme of public health, and from that referrer traffic found a blogger who had simply copied and pasted the entire post. Ratliff considered publicly shaming the blogger, as is common practice for many cases of online plagiarism, but in examining the OMG ROTFLMAO!!!!!!!!!!1!!111!! style of the blogger’s other posts, she came to the conclusion that her colleagues might be disappointed in such shooting at a too-easy target: certainly, no one who reads Ratliff’s weblog would associate her with the OMG ROTFLMAO!!!!!!!!!!1!!111!! tone. Ratliff’s third example was that of an essay on circumcision posted at kuro5hin.org under the title, “The Cruelest Cut.” Some of the essay was copied and pasted directly from Wikipedia without quotation marks or parenthetical attribution, and despite the fact that the author listed the Wikipedia article in his Works Cited, he was publicly shamed in a number of comments for plagiarism. Interestingly, another comment argued that “Wikipedia is meant to be ‘plagiarized’ too,” suggesting — as do Ratliff’s other examples — that plagiarism itself is a matter of negotiation. As Ratliff noted, the “authorlessness of Wikipedia may [itself] play a role” in such negotiation. Finally, Ratliff offered the example of The Humanity Critic, who performed an act of public shaming with his post titled “And the winner of the ‘Catch a dirty plagiarist Award’ is… Cris2ferJ.” The Humanity Critic describes how he’s so far caught 18 people plagiarizing via various methods, including the use of Copyscape, a Web-based plagiarism detection system for weblogs that its creators assert will help bloggers detect use of their writing both with and without citation. It’s interesting to me that much of the blogging described here seems to be performed as gift transaction — as something undertaken for pleasure — and yet the anger seems to be over theft; over the notion of an unrecompensated taking, which leads me to wonder: who can steal a gift? In any case, Ratliff pointed toward an interesting continuity between academic and nonacademic attitudes toward plagiarism, and suggested that continuity as a possibly productive place for further research.

Rebecca Moore Howard’s presentation, “Troping Plagiarism in the Blogosphere,” performed a frequently hilarious rhetorical analysis of the tropes associated with plagiarism that circulate in the blogosphere, and asked: in the study of plagiarism, do metaphors shift with medium, and do people writing online think differently about plagiarism than people writing in print? They do indeed, Howard suggested, and argued that while metaphors for print plagiarism center around the role of the writer, metaphors for online plagiarism foreground the role of the reader. According to Judge Posner’s definition, Howard pointed out, plagiarism is “simply unacknowledged copying” (“On Plagiarism,” Atlantic Monthly April 2002), and “concealment is at the heart of plagiarism” (The Little Book of Plagiarism 17). Definitionally speaking, we might see the intent of plagiarism as being the production of misunderstanding in readers, and such an understanding, Howard proposed, allows us to see copyright infringement as an offense against the writer, whereas plagiarism stands as an offense against the reader. Howard then offered a series of examples of the discourse of plagiarism, including such sites as Stop Plagiarism, which declares its dedication to stopping plagiarism in fanfiction (but neglects to acknowledge the istockphoto.com source of the background for its header image), with “guidelines for exposing a plagiarist via this community.” In fact, Howard points out, her research assistant Colleen immediately recognized the television show CSI as an intertext for the site’s discourse: plagiarism is to be investigated and adjudicated by a team. Self-proclaimed “plagiariologist” consultant John Lesko was Howard’s second example, whose hilariously bombastic site declares that “A plagiarist sucks the lifeblood right out of a text for his own selfish nourishment” and ” siphons off the life giving crimson fluid as ink for his own pen” and “justifies his plagiarisms through pseudo-philosophizations and self-justifications as he happily helps himself to your blood, my blood—anybody’s blood, as long as that red ink remains life-givingly fluid, un-encrusted, as yet un-congealed.”

Eeeeewwww.

This rhetoric of vampirism and murder pervades the site (there’s even a blood-dripping animated .gif), which also includes a link to an online self-proclaimed “scholarly journal” called Plagiary, a request for PayPal “spare change” donations, and a Creative Commons license. Perhaps most interesting, though, are the legalistic dossiers on famous plagiarists, each with a case number and color-coded War on Plagiarism Threat Level (Doris Kearns Goodwin: Red — Severe Risk!). Finally, Howard offered the examples of Bloggers Blog and Plagiarism Today with their metaphors of hunting and tracking plagiarism, so that the plagiarist becomes metaphorical prey. All these online examples, Howard pointed out, assert a sort of free-floating honor code and demand textual vigilanteism in which readers assume all roles in the system of retributive justice: detecting, identifying, judging, shaming, and punishing. And yet all this discourse is entirely symbolic: even Nate Kushner’s outing of Laura Pahl had no effect. It’s almost like a video game, Howard suggested — but what injury has been inflicted on the readers who take on these combative roles?

Finally, Sandra Jamieson offered a presentation on “Fraud Narratives and the Anxiety of Author(ity)lessness.” Jamieson began with well-known examples of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and lonelygirl15’s “Bree.” The deceptions of both were revealed on weblogs, with other weblog reactions ranging “from fury to nonchalance.” However, the mainstream media reacted to the two cases in radically different ways: Frey was pilloried in newspapers, magazines, and the talk show circuit, whereas the New York Times suggested that “Bree” (actress Jessica Rose) and her friends “just wanted a movie deal,” and other news sources asserted that the lonelygirl15 videos were just another way of telling stories and should be understood as such — and, in fact, wondered why viewers might be distressed at being deceived. These reactions revealed an overwhelming sense in the mainstream media that deception in print is a crime, and ought to be punished, but deception online is not, and ought to be expected — and that the people deceived are the ones to be blamed. These attitudes towards the differential treatment of electronic media and print material have analogues in our classroom attitudes: plagiarism in print is terrible and demands a severe response and re-education, while plagiarism online is no crime at all, and in fact to be expected as a fundamental characteristic of new media. This should tell us something about our attitudes toward new media, Jamieson argued, and these attitudes can best be understood through Derrida’s notion of the myth of presence and the hierarchical privileging of speech versus writing: Jamieson revised Derrida’s binary into a continuum, with presence at one end and absence at the other, so that thought is fundamentally present and speech the most present way of communicating thought, whereas writing is fundamentally absent, but electronic media are even more absent than writing. In their reactions to deception, the mainstream media had not achieved the qualitative distance from Frey’s memoir that they had from lonelygirl15’s YouTube videos. We might usefully extend this insight to our attitudes about plagiarism and student writing, which is neither videoblog nor memoir. Writing teachers find themselves so often outraged — furious — at instances of student plagiarism because we invest it with the same myth of presence as speech: student writing is not writing to us, but speech, and the sense of betrayal we carry in our reactions to plagiarism makes complete sense if we’ve fallen into the myth that speech is the purest form of the expression of thought and that student writing is very close to speech. Instead of falling prey to this confusion, Jamieson argued, we need to work to emphasize the differences between writing and speech. Unfortunately, this last set of points required elaboration at such considerable length that there was no time left for questions or discussion: an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise excellent panel.

I seem to have been shadowing Jenn on Thursday, with the panels we attended in common. Check out her account, as well as that of Michael Faris, who I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet.

CCCC07 C.26: Textual Transgressions

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