Aggregating or Stealing?

Time for Internets to Exit the Jacuzzi, Towel Off, Grow Up.

Shannon Coulter

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licensed photo credit: helencanada

A few weeks ago, I came across an essay on Medium entitled “I built, launched, and got paying customers for my side project in three hours.” In it Marc Eglon describes how in less than half a work day he created a platform for turning “the best essays” into podcasts.

When I read this piece, I felt a mix of admiration and anger. I mean, Eglon obviously has great initiative and a killer work ethic (I could learn a thing or two about streamlining from him), but what about the time it took writers and reporters to create the work he’d be…uh…repurposing?

More to the point, what about those paying customers Eglon mentioned? The headline references immediate profits, but there’s no discussion of whether or not he plans to share those profits with content creators, media outlets, or the artist whose name he borrowed — without advance permission—when naming the platform.

(To his credit, when I raised some of these issues in the comments section, Eglon politely replied he was aware and working on a way to address them.)

Yesterday I read Jason Newman’s Rolling Stone piece on Josh Ostrovsky — the Instagram guy who writes and performs under the name “Fat Jew.” He’s apparently been stealing other people’s jokes for a long time and passing them off as his own. Real writers and comedians have been calling him out on it for awhile, but that heated up when Ostrovsky recently got representation from CAA among other things.

In response, Ostrovsky invoked the Internet’s favorite euphemism for theft— aggregation — saying that (to paraphrase) he’s just repurposing content much the same way everyone else has for years now.

In a way, Ostrovsky is right. He and Eglon are just two examples of the Internet’s long-standing culture of over-borrowing. Eglon sits at a more ethical point on the continuum (he’s citing sources), but the continuum is real and these guys didn’t invent it. The Internet didn’t invent manners either, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to learn some.

Back in 2010 when I did marketing for a small startup, I wrote a series of infographics like this one. After posting them to our company’s blog, I’d watch as publications like Fast Company and Grist would republish them on their own sites.

Some, like Fast Company, had a more ethical way of doing it (gentlemen aggregators?). They’d usually just excerpt the original — sort of — and try to add some color of their own. Ironically, publications like GOOD and the venerable Atlantic did it in a somewhat more wholesale way.

Now, to be clear, this kind of media pickup was exactly what our company was after at the time. We worked hard to get that attention and I’m not implying these publications have much in common with a hack like Ostrovsky. At the time, we considered aggregation with credit a huge victory.

Since then, though, many media outlets have pivoted away from aggregation and I think that’s the right move. In an environment where media outlets and brands are competing more directly for a viewer’s time and attention, aggregating anything more than a press release just starts to look more and more like actual stealing.

Amanda Walgrove recently pointed out that Upworthy is jettisoning aggregation in favor of creating original content. Visual.ly began as more of an aggregation platform (infographics) but appears to have since moved more toward an agency model. Buzzfeed and Vice have a well documented commitment to doing more hard news these days. Netflix, Amazon are producing more original content. These last two were of course aggregating in a legal way (licensing), but the shift to producing more original content speaks to the increasing awareness of the value — and reduced risk — of owning your content outright.

It’s such a marked trend that in some ways what’s so dubious about Ostrovsky’s perspective — that the Internet is a “giant Jacuzzi of insanity” — is not how unethical it is, but how dated. That argument might have held water five years ago, but today Ostrovsky’s schtick seems stale — a lame pantomime of the actual irreverence, wackiness, and Wild Wild West-iness that defined the rise of the social web.

Meanwhile, back in the present, the media landscape is becoming a less causal, less anonymous, more monetized place than it used to be. The Internet of today is not, as Ostrovsky would have us believe, a 70's key party. Today’s Internet is sipping a Manhattan in a bistro and she’s no longer interested in the “exposure” you’re offering her. Just ask Taylor Swift.

Maybe the people who run digital media outlets finally started to notice — as the New York Times’ Michael Wolff so brilliantly put it — that “Television Won the Internet,” and decided to go upmarket with their approach. Or maybe they glimpsed the bottom of the well where the clickbait race was leading and got scared or bored or both. Or maybe they’re just came up with a new word for it like “curation.”

In any case, I am so grateful for the clear-eyed take of comedians and writers like Maura Quint who exposed one of the Internet’s biggest lies: that aggregation is somehow a form of creation in itself. I didn’t buy it when people said that about DJs* and I don’t buy it now. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, aggregate.

You can be inspired. You can be influenced. You can riff. You can iterate. But if your motto is “everything’s a remix,” you’re operating under a set of rules that’s already outdated.

Time to grow up, Internets. Time to stop assuming it’s legitimate to build your empire on the backs of writers, musicians, comics, and other creators. The professionals have arrived and they are just flat out not having it. Thanks Chelsea Paretti, Megh Wright, Patton Oswalt, Michael Ian Black, Kumail Nanjiani, and all the others who cracked this sucker wide open. Thanks for never having swallowed the silicon-laced Kool Aid. Thanks for pointing out that it’s not cool to steal — even something as seemingly ephemeral as a joke.

You are the great unaggregable and I love you for it.

*Except of course for early hip hop DJs in NYC who invented scratching. If that’s not an art form unto itself, I don’t know what is.

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Shannon Coulter

President of Grab Your Wallet Alliance, helping people flex their economic power for a more equitable, democratic society.