motd.co: Twitter & Plagiarism: Where is the Line?

As someone who spends a probably absurd amount of time excavating old tweets on Twitter, I come across a lot of people who “plagiarize tweets”. What I mean by this is very specifically accounts made by people who go and find popular tweets via some method, whether it’s finding things that come across their timeline, going to very specific popular accounts by funny people, or using something like Favstar; copying the text of a popular tweet or downloading an image/video from a tweet, and then reposting it. I consider this “plagiarism” and I’m not really here to discuss the ethics of it, why it’s bad, why some people think it’s okay, or whatever else. This has been done to death and I’m sure people who understand more about the history of communication could tell you more about the nuances of it.

Now– there are a lot of tweets that, among a certain cadre online, make up a sort of “canon”. A lot of these are by @dril, but among smaller groups you’ll find tweets by other accounts that have just been retweeted and seen so often that it’s assumed that everyone knows them. In that case, the CONCEPT of the joke itself becomes its own meme, and people will frequently “riff” on that same joke on Twitter without giving explicit credit to the original tweet. It’s a desire to create a transformative work and signal your knowledge of a cool thing that people you respect know, both of which are popular things to do in a lot of forms online (and presumably among many communities throughout history). It’s also an assumption that anyone who sees the tweet will a) know the original joke and b) know that you KNOW the original joke and are not trying to take any credit for it. This assumption can sometimes break down, and people get mad, and that’s a whole other phenomenon. BUT! I don’t even want to talk about THAT.

What I want to talk about is a bizarre grey area that I discovered tonight, while looking for an old tweet that (sadly) appears to have been deleted. It was this tweet, by user @crushingbort:

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But it’s gone, the only trace of it left on Twitter being a tweet by one of these sort of “twitter comedy plagiarist” accounts. But in the process of trying to navigate away from the stolen tweet, thanks to Twitter’s awful modal interface, I landed on the person’s profile page, and discovered something kind of baffling. In my opinion, he is creating transformative works, except I don’t see how it could possibly be without the intent of taking credit for the originals. It strikes me as kind of a weird outsider art. So here’s a bunch of (honestly, not very good) original tweets, followed by his reinterpretation of the work, in which he plagiarizes the original text word-for-word but attaches a photo of himself to each one:

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Anyway, don’t steal tweets.