When the Internet Steals Your Words (and How to Get Them Back)

[Editor’s note: A few years back, we ran a “From Our Readers” post from a smart young writer named Amelia Olson. The post was overwhelmingly popular—at the time, one of the most popular posts on our site—and the advice within it resonated with thousands of HelloGiggles‘ readers. Somewhere in the course of its promotion and pickup from other sites, a quote of Amelia’s was misattributed to our founder Zooey Deschanel. The quote has been passed and passed and passed around for years, all under Zooey’s name, never crediting Amelia’s initial work. We respect our writers and their writing—Amelia reached out to us earlier this month to finally set the record straight, and we’re here today to make it right.]

When I was eight years old, a boy in my neighborhood walked up to me, looked me square in the eye and said, “You have elephant ears! They’re HUGE!” and ran off. As he ran away, I yelled back, tears rolling down my cheeks, “Well at least I can hear better than you!” This describes my reaction to most jerks and also explains a little bit about how I process difficult and embarrassing things: standing up for myself while also crying a little bit, too.

When I first submitted Seven Reasons to Reach Out To Every Person Ever to HelloGiggles, I was living in Cambridge, MA and was in a dark space. Living in a city full of potentials and degrees has a way of making the degree-less feel even more lost than the average millennial. I felt isolated and sad with little direction and needed to create something tangible that reminded me of all the beautiful things that made living vulnerably important. Writing the article and having it published saved me from feeling emotionally lost and subsequently launched a career I had no idea I would embark upon.

After the post went up on the site, I thought a handful of folks would second my emotion and that’d be that. So, it was totally shocking and strange to watch this tiny essay re-circulate on thousands of sites, ranging from The Huffington Post to feminist websites, all in a matter of a few hours. What really knocked the wind out of me was how many people felt like I did. After being rejected most of my life for being too sensitive or “wishy washy,” having thousands of people celebrate those same qualities gave me a sense of purpose and empowerment I had never felt. The entire reception was overwhelming, exciting, and bizarre.

About a year after HelloGiggles first published the article, I got an “anonymous” email via my Tumblr blog accusing me of “plagiarizing” Zooey Deschanel in “Seven Reasons To Reach Out To Every Person Ever.” At first I LOLed and assumed it was some Internet troll doing Internet-troll things. But then I got a weird nervous feeling in my stomach and decided to investigate. The quote had been misappropriated and re-blogged on 32,500 blogs and the simplest of Google searches brought up hundreds of memes with Zooey’s name and face attached to my words. Sites like The Huffington Post, which, ironically, re-blogged the article a year ago giving me credit, was now posting memes with the quote and Zooey’s name.

Here is my quote:

And here is just one of the (many) memes:

To be honest, I was sort of flattered—at first. I had spent the past 26 years of life being mostly unmemorable professionally, despite writing for over a decade. To see something I wrote had reached the outer stretches of the vast Internet world made me feel celebrated, even if someone else’s name was attached to it. But after a while, that feeling dissipated as I continued to run into the meme over and over again on everything from greetings cards to t-shirts. I wrote to HelloGiggles asking if there was anything they could do to help, but got no response [Ed note: we feel terrible about this]. I eventually took the matter into my own hands, along with a few friends—who would continuously correct posts and promote my blog. Those corrections were small victories amidst an overall lack of presence from anyone directly involved.

Trying to locate at what precise point a quote or body of work has been misattributed is like finding a needle in a galactic haystack. It was next to impossible. I combed through blog after blog and searched website after website, trying to figure out how this mess began. Eventually, I went to the source and found a re-blog from another Tumblr on HelloGiggles’ Tumblr, misattributing the quote. I don’t think this mistake was intentional or malicious. I think it was a simple oversight some well-meaning staffer made that the ocean of the Internet took up and threw further than anyone could have imagined.

Frustrated and feeling ignored, I began looking into what my rights were in all this mess. Did I have any? Was it illegal? Was I being plagiarized? Was this even plagiarism? Each time the meme reappeared in major outlets I would post the link to my Facebook page and ask friends to write in helping to clear up the misappropriation. On one of those comment threads, a friend told me a story about her poet friend who had a poem of his misattributed to the famous and crushingly talented Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. It seemed what we were seeing was a new sort of community-appointed “plagiarism” that multiplied faster than the Internet had time or energy to care for or correct. And this type of thing had a name, and it wasn’t “plagiarism” but rather a new term made just for the Internet, called “attribution decay.”

The term attribution decay was actually created by novelist William Gibson, the same man who coined the term “cyberspace.” Gibson found himself on the other end of misappropriation after tweeting a quote, “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes,” not his own words but rather a sentiment he enjoyed. The Internet quickly re-tweeted the quote, this time attributing Gibson. According to Gibson, the author is Steven Winterburn, but the quote is generally accepted and widely circulated as Gibson’s. This is a classic example of an unintentional but still irresponsible usage of social media that lead to the misattribution of someone’s work and as a result wreaked havoc on the original author’s career and annoyed the admirer.

Attribution decay is more than an icky feeling. It fundamentally jeopardizes the integrity of any artist’s body of work. It strips the identity of the independent and non-famous artist, and reappropriates the content to someone more noticeable or famous. This is obviously problematic for the working artist, but it also plays into larger ideas of exploitation and irresponsible publishing. Each time Gibson got credit for words he did not say, it furthered his public image and multiplied traffic on any site that shared the misattributed quote. Eventually, Gibson became aware of the mistake and publicly acknowledged he had never said that and had never claimed to say that. Still, the implications and profitability of the misattribution cannot be removed because the memes just keep circulating and most of the world goes on thinking Gibson is responsible for the famous quote. I know how little effect clarification has after the fact. Although Buzzfeed writer Gabby Noone wrote an article listing 13 commonly circulated celebrity misquotes, mine making number four, the memes continued to be reblogged over and over.

Beyond the very real professional consequences of attribution decay, there are personal consequences for the artist whose work has been hijacked, and the longer we live, the more strikingly obvious it becomes that the world will move on with or without us.

We make art because there is a tender spot inside ourselves. Because we want to be able to say “I was here.” Because we are nursing a broken bone in our hearts and want to get all the poison out. We make art because we are full and happy or in love and on fire. We make art because we are lonely and need a new language. These reasons are sacred to the individual and cannot be imitated or recreated by anyone else. They are the heart’s thumbprint and while the Internet knows no bounds, we as individuals, professionals, and public entities ought to. It is our responsibility to support a respectful and honorable landscape for independent artists and their work.

I still believe in every single word I wrote two years ago, and although the last two years have been complicated and frustrating, the lessons learned have been invaluable and profound. I am so grateful to the editors at HelloGiggles for taking on this tornado and handling it, and me, with grace and respect. This situation is an example of the professional entity protecting the artist that contributes to their company or organization and it renews my faith in a human’s ability to rectify mistakes and move forward stronger than before. Sometimes the crooked parts that make us feel lonely, if rearranged and fought for, can make us better than we could have imagined and fuller than we felt capable of.

[Amelia is now a regular columnist for HelloGiggles]