“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A phrase that I, myself, have heard on numerous occasions. Outside of work, I’m sporting a near 30 tattoos. Tattoos are my passion, and the famous Charles Colton proverb has been relayed to me a number of times when I’ve seen original designs on my body mimicked by other so-called “artists.” In a digital environment, the copycat culture is also very much alive when it comes to content production and social media. There is simply no escaping it, and despite a majority of people being taught that “stealing is wrong” in childhood, online, it’s a free for all.
As a digital marketer, for me there seem to be two divisions of online imitation. Firstly, there is the blatant copy and pasting of social media copy: quite literally Tweeting out the exact same thing as another account. This is how Twitter accounts such as @dory and @GirlPosts make their living:
Secondly, there is the regurgitation of social media posts in news articles. Reddit is quite often the breeding ground for potential viral content, and a number of popular publishers (LadBible, BuzzFeed) have been “called out” for repurposing content that originally appeared on forum sites like Reddit. In fact, there’s a subreddit that exists, /r/subredditsimulator, which consists of bots generating content for external publishers. When a post hits the front page of Reddit, the content is then automatically pulled and served by another publisher - such as 9Gag.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
I’m sure we’re all in agreement that “credit where credit’s due” is a fair statement, and this is where the two divisions above take different approaches. Both copy content from elsewhere, but, 9 times out of 10, publishers credit the original source. Sure, they’ve probably nicked those screenshots of your awkwardly funny Tinder exchanges, or your Tweets that are made about ten-times funnier due to your regional dialect, but at least you’ll be served credit. There is the minority of publishers that will instead cease to include credit, and profiteer off the copied content by placing it alongside its own advertisements as a source of revenue - but this is increasingly becoming a smaller percentage as online audiences become more aware of copycat tactics.
In the social media world, things are a little more tricky. Self-proclaimed “parody accounts” thrive by hitting CTRL+C on posts that have the potential, or are already beginning, to go viral. A recent example of this is the imitation of one of Matt Nelson’s Twitter accounts. You may recall we have praised the account WeRateDogs™, for its unique and endearing tone of voice. Nelson’s more recent Twitter venture, @dog_feelings, has already accumulated 94.8K followers since March 2017, likely owed to its recognisable and original tone of voice, which Nelson discusses in this interview.
Of course, with a sniff of success and potential, parody accounts have already honed in on reciting these Tweets - word for word and, as you probably guessed, with no credit.
The rulebook on copying social media posts seems to be completely askew, and as you can see above, Twitter has failed on a number of occasions to remove accounts that profit from content devised by other individuals, under the DCMA. The same responsibilities publishers have (e.g. providing reliable sources for content) social media accounts do not. This is despite social media platforms arguably being considered publishers in their own right in the present day.
“But THEY did it.”
It’s the age old excuse that you’d relay to your parents. “but if they jumped off a cliff, would you do it too!?” a frustrated mother would grumble at me, after I’d just been caught in the act risking my life riding down the stairs on my bike, pointing an unwavering finger at my brother and his friends.
The same response very much applies to brands who may be tempted to seek a quick-win by copying content that doesn’t actually belong to them. Just because the likes of 9Gag and Buzzfeed do it, doesn’t mean that your company can pull it off. It might be tempting to do a quick copy and paste job on a hilarious Tweet that has gone viral - after all, you’re under pressure from your social media manager to make up the numbers. But - wait there - how will you respond if, and when, you’re called out on it by a Twitter user?
There is a fine line between imitation and appreciation. Yes, it’s a funny novelty if your brand mimics the extremely lovable, and quotable, WeRateDogs™ tone of voice:
But copying word-for-word something you may have stumbled upon on Reddit, or a Tweet that someone RT’ed by a colleague may have posted, is likely to get your brand in more trouble than it’s worth.
What’s a couple of hundred ReTweets in comparison to your company’s reputation as its own, original brand?
Sure, it’s fun for Shark Week to take a page out of WeRateDogs™ book. It’s okay to experiment with your social media and content offerings, and there’s nothing more hilarious than being caught off guard when a business account you follow quotes something that went viral a few weeks prior. However, it’s important not to overstep the line by completely repurposing a piece of content word-for-word, and passing it off as your own.
The most important thing, first and foremost, is establishing your own brand online. Find your own tone of voice, your own approach to content. Once you’re comfortable in your own company and what it stands for, then you can start dipping your toes into more experimental tactics online.
TL;DR don’t copy content and pass it off as your own - leave that to 9Gag. Experiment in mimicking popular approaches to social media, but not in a way that is evidently to profiteer your own business, come on, let’s be genuine and funny here! If you do use someone else’s content, always credit it and seek permission prior, after all, that’s just polite.
What’s your opinion on the copycat culture online? Is it OK to reuse someone else’s content? After all, it isn’t policed. Have you had your content stolen before? Tweet us @FastWebMedia