Memetic Epidemiology

Published 13 years, 7 months past

I had planned to spend yesterday goofing off, as is my tradition for the day after I return from a conference and don’t have anything immediately pressing on my plate.  Instead I watched and documented, as best I could, a case of memetic epidemiology happen in realtime.

The meme was the Cooks Source story, which I stumbled across relatively early in the day.  I won’t recap the story here, as the original LiveJournal post by Monica Gaudio and Edward Champion’s very well-researched article do a much better job of that.  The latter piece is particularly commendable if you’re new to the story, as it not only explains the genesis of the incident but also lays bare a number of other things that were discovered as the story went ballistic.

I’m not sure exactly where I first came across the story—probably a retweet of Adam Banks by a friend of mine—but at the time the meme was really just getting started.  At that point there were quite a few people posting on the Cooks Source Facebook Wall to chastise the editor, and the rate of posting was accelerating.  I threw in my own tweet on the topic and kept watching the Wall to see if there would be a response, if the Facebook page would be deleted, or something else.  At the same time, I was seeing more and more tweets and retweets of the story, and based on just what I could see, it seemed primed to go crazy.  I was rewteeted by swissmiss, who has four times as many followers as me (and way more influential followers than me), and it was hitting the feeds of more and more people I follow.

When it showed up on John Scalzi’s tweet stream, I actually got a little dizzy.  This was the moment where I felt like the scientist at the beginning of a viral-apocalypse movie, staring at a monitor showing the sites of reported infection in red.  Then, in a burst of tense, ominous music, the dots show up in New York City and around JFK.  Game over.

I got that feeling because I knew that not only is Mr. Scalzi followed by both Neil Gaiman (1.5 million followers) and Wil Wheaton (1.7 million followers), but he is respected and therefore paid attention to by both.  Furthermore, both, as net-savvy content creators like Mr. Scalzi, are exquisitely sensitive to such stories.  It was only a matter of time before one of them passed the story on to their followers.  And sure enough, within minutes, Neil Gaiman did so.

At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before traditional media channels took interest, and though it took a little while, many did.  It literally became an international news story.

Throughout the day, I tracked the situation and tweeted about it as new developments happened.  I almost couldn’t help myself; I was completely captivated by watching a meme unfold and spread in realtime.  Eventually I hit on a crude measurement of the story’s reach, which I dubbed the Speed of Chastisement (SoC).  This was measured by loading the Cooks Source Wall and then scrolling to the bottom of the page, down to the “Older posts” button.  The time elapsed since the last of the Wall posts was the SoC.  When I started looking at it, it was measurable in minutes, but as the day went on the interval dropped.  At one point, it was as low as 34 seconds, and may well have dropped lower when I wasn’t looking.

I wish I could’ve automatically captured that number, say, every minute, because the timeline graph I could make with that data would be fascinating—especially if mapped against various developments, like Neil Gaiman’s retweet of John Scalzi or the time of various article publications.

One of the things I found most fascinating was how the outraged mob used Cooks Source’s own digital presence against it.  I don’t actually mean all the Wall posts, which served as an emotional outlet but otherwise only indicated the story’s memetic velocity (the SoC I mentioned earlier).  What people did was start new threads in the Discussions tab of Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to document the original sources of Cooks Source articles and to compile the contact information for all of the advertisers in Cooks Source.  The speed at which the crowd operated was awesome in the older sense of that word as inspiring of awe, which is itself defined as power to inspire fear or reverence.  As I told a friend, I was fascinated in the same way I’d be fascinated watching, from a distance, a predator hunting down its prey.  Awe-struck.  It was almost frightening to watch how fast people tracked down the various text and image sources, uncovering more and more evidence of bad behavior at full-bore, redlined Internet speed.

On a related point, I was very impressed by the quality of reporting in Edward Champion’s article about the story.  Alone of all the articles I’ve seen (beyond the first couple of LJ posts), his laid out specific examples of repurposed content, and furthermore he had talked to people involved and gotten their perspective and to people at some of the sites and companies whose material had been re-used.  Read the article, if you didn’t already follow one of the links.  It is investigative journalism done far better than any reporter has yet done for any traditional, or even “new media”, news outlet.

I could write about all this for much longer, but I’m going to hold off.  My day wasn’t all just observation and tweets, though.  A few questions kept hovering in the back of my mind.

  • What if the mob had been wrong?

    Imagine with me for a moment that a small crocheting magazine is accused of copyright violation by an author.  The editor, knowing this to be false, sends a dismissive or even sarcastic letter (we’ve all done it).  The author posts their side of the story and excerpts of the letter to their blog, people notice, and suddenly the Flash Mob of Righteousness is back in business.

    What then?  Is it possible, once the rope is out and being tied into a noose, to put it away again?

  • Did Cooks Source actually win?

    As I write this, about 24 hours after the story really blew up, the Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from 110 people who “Like This” to almost 3,400.  Most of those are because in order to comment on the Wall, you have to Like the page, and a whole lot of people hit “Like”, commented, and then hit “Unlike”.  Some of them are still listed because they’re still posting.  Still, assume that by the time it’s all over, between people who want to keep harassing Cooks Source and people who just forgot to hit “Unlike”, they’ll have well over a thousand people listed.  That’s a full order of magnitude jump in claimed like.

    Is that a measure of success?  Will it, in fact, end up a net positive for Cooks Source as it tries to entice advertisers for future issues?  Of course, that assumes the magazine survives the attention of lawyers from Disney, Paula Deen Enterprises, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the Food Network, Sunset, National Public Radio, and so on and so on.

  • What about Gene Simmons?

    A few weeks back, Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) said that anyone who illegally shares files should be “sued off the face of the earth” and that bands should be litigious about people copying their music.  In response, his web site was cracked and a good deal of derision was directed his way.

    Interesting.  In one case, a content creator who calls for vigorous defense of copyright is attacked for it.  In another, a violator of copyright is attacked.  How many of the people who Wall-bombed Cooks Source’s Facebook page were also cheering the anonymous crackers who harassed Gene Simmons?  Why the disconnect?

    There are many reasons we could cite, and I think the most likely factor is that in both cases, the targets of attack were publicly arrogant and uncompromising about their positions.  That, however, is absolutely no excuse.  If you were outraged by Cooks Source, shouldn’t you cheer Gene Simmons’ stance?  If you rolled your eyes Gene Simmons, shouldn’t you be on the side of Cooks Source?

    I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things.  But not many.  The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

This isn’t the first time someone will set off an outrage swarm, and it won’t be the last.  There is much to think about here, about both ourselves and the medium we inhabit.

Comments (14)

  1. I’m glad to see you’ve written down some of the various lines of thought that should be pursued in reflection from this event. In a brief exchange over Twitter, I mentioned that this company’s digital footprint is now ruined for an indeterminate amount of time – possibly forever. As much as the proof has been shown that this magazine has been ripping off content for quite awhile, the idea of a large mob wielding the Web equivalent of pitchforks and torches is frightening. “Bad press” doesn’t begin to sum up what happened to Cooks Source yesterday.

    There *is* a lot to think about when events like this occur. Social media is a double-edged sword. Where are the seemingly-arbitrary lines of the perception of content ownership and copyright drawn? What does this mean going forward? I have no idea, maybe this is just a sign that we’re getting closer to a unified consciousness. Or that – as it has always been – people like to project their frustrations on to an easy target… and everyone likes a good beat-down.

  2. Eric,

    Totally agree with your final thoughts here, especially #1. While this was unfolding I found myself thrilled at what felt like the appropriate community response, while simultaneously wondering how this would all get recalled if it turned out some info was wrong. The amalgamated power of the WWW is truly awesome, just exactly as you described. Let’s hope that can find ways to exercise this power with discretion. Thanks for writing this up!

  3. The difference between Gene Simmons’ position and Cook’s Source though, is that Cook’s Source is violating copyright for profit, whereas file sharers are not.

  4. Bah. The difference between the Cooks Source case and the Simmons case is addressed by the modular scoping of the CC licenses.

    CS used someone’s content to make money without their consent, and dimly claimed they had a categorical right to do so when they got busted.

    GS came across as a self-entitled, hamfisted apologist for the RIAA’s revenue model, one presumes because he’s [a] from an era where that was the best they could do by way of making healthy profits and [b] is one of the lucky few who’s been turned into a zillionaire thereby.

    …So no, not shocked at all by the cognitive dissonance. In both cases people are furious at the sense of self-entitlement these people project, in many cases perhaps because it threatens their own.

  5. Great post, Eric.

    Your Twitter stream was where I first encountered the story, and initially I joined in the fun… oops, I mean the censuring of unethical behavior!

    However, things quickly got ugly. In addition to your valid concerns (especially #1), I have a further concern: collateral damage.

    While in the first few hours, the online “lynch mob” was dominated by well-intentioned, reasonable, and presumably intelligent people (to the extent that lynch mobs can be reasonable), it quickly devolved into something far worse: the online equivalent of all-out riot.

    Caught up in this were the presumably innocent advertisers. These micro-businesses are apparently still being inundated with phone calls and emails from lunatic activists and zealots seeking to punish anyone and everyone associated with CS. One zealot brags on Facebook about having overwhelmed an advertiser’s email. This is horrifying.

    From my safe distance, this has been fascinating. And as you say, it is truly awesome. But I can’t help but spare a thought for the innocent people caught in the crossfire. I really hope this all ends well!

  6. Brennan: why does that matter? Copyright violations don’t depend on profit. And even if they did, it’s entirely possible that some of the people who download free KISS tracks burn them to CDs and then sell them for a few bucks on the street. Does that suddenly make his argument valid?

    Ben: I agree that both Gene Simmons and Cooks Source came across as self-entitled and ham-fisted. Is that what it takes for them to be wrong? But, as I said to Brennan, the existence of profit doesn’t strike me as a useful way to decide if someone’s in the right or wrong. If I punch you in the face, it’s assault (and wrong) regardless of whether or not someone paid me to do it.

  7. @Eric 6:

    You’ll note that nowhere in my previous comment did I excuse ANYBODY’s bad behavior.

    So, for the final score:

    Cooks Source: Loss. Self-entitled, ham-fisted, and wrong.

    Gene Simmons: Loss. Self-entitled, ham-fisted, and right (after a fashion). Cf. the story of the invention of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

    Haters: Loss. Get a life.

  8. As to the matter of reaction to Gene Simmons contrasted to the reaction to Cooks Source as a lens to how we react to matters of copyright and ownership, I think it comes down to who the group views as “the little guy” in each situation and how easy it is to relate to that party.

    Because news media and “reality television” have reinforced that music artists, especially ones as successful as Simmons, are immensely wealthy because of “lucrative record deals” or residuals, and because artists are oftentimes behind the wall of RIAA, a consumer-hostile entity, the consumer of music thinks himself to be the little guy. Obviously, Simmons’s bullheaded tone doesn’t do himself any favors, but I think critics were already predisposed to dismiss any such statement as just some rich musician issuing decrees from an ivory tower. Music consumers are already defensive about record companies and artists hurling missives toward them.

    In the case of Cooks Source, the little guy is an average blogger/writter who does freelance work to make ends meet. Empathizing with her is easy as many might relate to the experience of doing hard work and find someone has stolen it for their own gains. Some actively on the internet dream of going freeland, and the thought of plagiarism happening is disgusting.

  9. People “stealing” Gene Simmons’ music are doing no such thing. They’re like a person who goes to the library and checks out the album a lot, only without the inconvenience. No one profits from that “theft” except maybe the person downloading (although one could make a very strong case that they never would have paid for the album in the first place, and in fact by gaining another fan who would buy T-shirts and concert tickets and stuff, KISS itself actually profits from the piracy).

    Cooks Source “stole” that woman’s article and then profited from it without giving her a share of what they made. Completely different.

  10. You are right we could have been wrong and that would have been very bad indeed, but in this case at last count 101 examples of duplicate content have been identified. Not all of these are necessarily used illegally, some may indeed be public domain, but it looks like lifting content is the business model of this magazine.

    There are two issues that will decide the outcome, whether Cooks Source is sued by those who have had articles used without permission and whether advertisers will still pay for publicity in this magazine. The current advertisers have been bombarded with contacts and several have explicitly said they will have nothing more to do with Cooks Source. If this is true then that’s the end of the line for the magazine.

    I am troubled though by the scale of the shaming and the level of vitriol this issue has inspired. Of course, Cooks Source shouldn’t steal content to save a few bucks, but is this the worst thing that any of us will hear about this week? Probably not but it’s the one that mobilised thousands of people. I’m not sure what that says about the current culture online.

    The collective that gathered around this issue is powerful, but is this the best use we can find for this power? I hope not, but I also hope that all those who have had content used without permission get redress.

  11. I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things. But not many. The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

    IHMO there is a very clear difference between sharing a song or two with a friend to get them into your favourite bend, and taking an article to make a profit. ok, sharing 200 songs with a bunch of strangers on p2p (still for free) is a little less clear, but still very far from profiting on other people’s work.

    it’s not a legal difference, but a moral one. but law also recognizes this difference, it just places the line of “fair use” a little further than the average netizen (playing a cd to your friends for a party is fair use, selling tickets to said party is copyright infringement — clear distinction on profit).

    also, most of us have done the first thing (and sometimes it led to buying the album/movie/ticket), but most of us didn’t try to sell the pirated copy on the street. as an intellectual property creator (coder/writer), i am willing to face that collective view (also, see the whole FOSS/CC/wiki movements)..

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  14. It’s amazing how big mobs can get without the burden of physical space. I’ve yet to read the actual story of what happened, but there’s that old saying that any publicity is good publicity, and I think from an advertising standpoint, it would be very easy to take advantage of thousands of visitors coming to your site to post hate comments.

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