When Does Social Media Copying Go Too Far?

Filed as Features on December 8, 2008 10:20 am

Yesterday, on CenterNetworks, Allen Stern reported on a new social news site, Social|Median. The story, however, didn’t center around Social|Median’s features or capability, but instead on how, according to Stern, it “take(s) content from around the Web, put it onto Socialmedian and let you comment about it.”

Though I did not see any widespread copying of content on the links that I checked (example), it appears that the amount of content copied in the snippet is determined by the user posting the link, not the site.

Still, it is clear that there has to be a balancing act between social media and content creators. Though social news sites need to use some of the content and conversation from the blog in order to properly function, if they take too much, there is nothing left to encourage content creators to participate or permit their works to be used.

Finding this balance is tricky and has been a problem that has plagued social news sites since the beginning. Many sites have faced criticism for “scraping content” or “fragmenting the conversation” and the concern remains at the top of mind of many Webmasters, especially when dealing with new social news sites that do not drive significant traffic.

So how should social news behave? The last is not very clear but the standards on the Web seem to have spoken to at least some degree.

Content and Copying

When it comes to how much content a social news site should reuse, the most popular sites currently, Digg and Reddit, actually set very good standards. Digg, for example, includes a short description with every submission. That submission can come from content from the site itself or can be custom-written by the submitter.

Likewise, Reddit does not provide any description at all, just a headline, which serves as the link to the article, and the domain the link is hosted on, nothing more. It is up to the submitter to ensure that the headline is descriptive and interesting enough to make people click through.

This system of limited content dates back to many of the earliest social news-style sites, including Slashdot and Fark, which resemble Digg and Reddit respectively in how they use content from source pages.

In the end, it seems that most social news sites, especially the successful ones, are stingy with the amount of copied content they allow and quick to link out. This not only helps Webmasters benefit from these sites and encourage their active participation, but also declutters the site itself, putting the focus on other aspects, especially the conversation.

Fragmenting the Conversation

The one thing that all four of the sites mentioned above does that might upset bloggers is that they all provide their own comment threads. In fact, on all of these social news sites above, the conversation is the centerpiece of the site as much as is the content.

Many have expressed concern that this fragments the conversation and makes it so that visitors are unsure about where to leave their feedback. Since most blogs provide comments of their own, bloggers clearly have a desire to have their visitors start a conversation there and not on other sites.

Typically, when an article hits the front page of Digg, Reddit or similar sites, the social news site will see hundreds of comments about the article but the original site only a few, if any.

Legally, however, there is little one can do about a fragmented conversation. Though copyright law protects what you right from being excessively copied and pasted elsewhere, it does not prevent others from talking about what you’ve created.

However, according to social Web strategist Liz Strauss, this is not always a bad thing and has always been a part of history, “Life itself can fragment conversations. We sometimes forget that. We often expect more of our conversations online than of what happens in the offline world.”

Liz goes on to say that she, “Keep(s) track of important thoughts using BackType and Twitter in tandem as I’ve seen others do. Sometimes, I’ll send a friend a Twitter that I’ve answered their comment with a link back. And I’ll read BackType to know when they’ve done the same.”

Of course, on the Web, conversations have always been fragmented, including well before social news. Forums used to be important places for discussing new links and, as Strauss pointed out, long before even the Internet people discussed what they saw or read at their office, with friends or elsewhere.

If anything, the Internet is unique in that it lets authors and creators host a conversation, not in that it fragments the conversation.

Personally, I make it my policy to respond to all comments on the original sites I post, be it here or on my other sites, and may respond elsewhere if I learn about it and feel it appropriate. The goal is to make it so that, if people want to discuss what I wrote with me, they know where to do it, but they are free to talk about it elsewhere with others if they wish and I will do my best to follow that conversation as it happens.

Bottom Line

Social media is a partnership between the new sites/services and the Webmasters that create the content. When the partnership goes well, bloggers and content creators have a powerful avenue to promote themselves and their work and social news sites become powerful hubs for information, when the balance is off, content creators feel ripped off and rebel against the service, causing them to not promote the site and, in some cases, actively work to have their content removed.

For both to be successful, there must be some give and take. Bloggers can not expect social news to be little more than a funnel of traffic to their site, and social news can not attempt to replace the role of the original site.

The goal of social news is to promote good work. To do that, it needs both good content to promote and the ability to do so. Social news sites will live and die by the quality of the content they promote and the conversation they host, making it important for both sides to understand their limitations.

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  1. By Melissa Donovan, Copywriter posted on December 8, 2008 at 6:54 pm
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    Your policy is the same as mine. Whenever I come across an interesting link, I always leave my comment on the source site rather than the directory or referring site. Once in a while, I’ll do both. However, I think it’s good when people are sharing and discussing your content, even if they’re doing so on another site like Digg, Reddit, etc.

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  2. By kathryn posted on December 9, 2008 at 9:44 am
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    you mention copyright laws – how do they prevent “excessive copying and pasting” how does that worl? I mean can you actually prevent that?

    I agree with Liz – all conversations are fragmented – the internet allows you to pick it back up at the precise pace you stopped……

    this is a bit fragmented – sorry ;)

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  3. By Jonathan Bailey posted on December 9, 2008 at 9:57 am
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    Melissa: Glad to hear that I’m not alone on that one. I always want to make sure the author sees what I’m writing about, they are the one I’m (yelling at, complimenting, refuting, supporting, etc.) so it makes sense. I think that is the best approach though it is always neat to see what these communities like Digg and Reddit have to say.

    Kathryn: I suppose I chose the wrong terminology there, they don’t prevent it but they do give you a means to stop it by using the DMCA or the EDEC in Europe to get the material removed. One could argue that the DMCA would let you wrap your content in DRM and make the breaking of it illegal, but that would be silly and stupid.

    So, it doesn’t *prevent* the copying and pasting, but give you a means to deal with it. That was a poor choice of words on my part.

    I agree with Liz too. She truly is one of the brightest minds in this area!

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