Next Stop: The Intersection of Plagiarism and Social Media


There are signs all around us that things are changing: gas prices dropping, leaves falling from trees, new technologic accoutrements being released daily, and celebrities disappearing from reality TV shows as quickly as you can say, "Dancing With the Stars." 

Actually, we need look no further than our own use of language and ideas to see evidence of a few seismic and probably even more momentous shifts now underway. Intersections of cultural phenomena have tugged on our academic universe in some fascinating ways. 

image by Master Isolated Images

Last week a group of Writing Across the Curriculum faculty at our college gathered to discuss a few such intersections, including concepts of plagiarism and concepts of social media, both of which seem markedly in flux. To wit:  memes have surfaced as the new backbone of popular culture, especially for those under 20 years of age. 

What's a meme?  Well, if you are one of the 19 million people who have viewed or made reference to "keyboard cat" over the past several years, you have been privy to a meme.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch here:

This New York Times article offers a brief explanation of memes for those like me who hadn't a clue that the obsession with cats playing the piano belied far more than a collective eccentricity of folks who favor felines: "Internet Memes 101: A Guide to Online Wackiness" by David Pogue. He includes links to other memes, like "Dramatic Prairie Dog," the video for the song "Friday," and the real-world participatory practice called "planking."

But the most instructive information I found in regard to defining memes came from a PBS Arts video (Offbook: PBS video online), aptly titled, "How to Explain Memes to Your Parents."  The handful of people interviewed in this brief film offer some insight into how memes are constructed and, importantly, why.

So memes are now a main staple of social media and pop culture: at their best, irreverent commentaries on society, and at their worst, the social media version of chain letter emails.

What has this got to do with plagiarism?  Well, the social and cultural values promoted in the development and distribution of memes include levels of collaboration as well as the fundamental notion of imbuing images with a unique twist or spin.  Such twists or spins are essentially the embellishment of an existing image without any acknowledgment of the image's origins and without expectation of any attribution for the newly conceived image launched into a viral spiral via social media.

If such experiences are part and parcel of the experience of younger users of technology, then it follows that boundaries around what constitutes intellectual property and how to appropriately cull and cite information from sources could appear somewhat blurred for them.  It's highly likely that his blurring of boundaries could and does create some measure of confusion for students when it comes to documenting academic sources.

Susan Blum, Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame and author of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, explains in one chapter of her book "how the practice of citation---the antidote to plagiarism---arose and how the norms ...on which it is based are being challenged.  It seems that rather than being entirely ignorant of the principles of citation, students are often aware of them but do not entirely accept them (29)."

Some instructors present at our discussion last week decided that memes and other examples from social media might serve as useful points of class discussion in helping students better distinguish the expectations of creditable and credible academic work and the importance of fully developing one's own ideas within a larger realm of thought.  Our students, after all, are just entering the conversations that have gone on in some discipline contexts for centuries.  We must imagine new ways to throw them the ropes. 

And however creative, innovative, irreverent, or just plain wacky popular culture ever is, the behaviors attached to using the latest, greatest techno tools might need adjusting when transferred to other complex environments, both professional and educational.  Such environments typically demand thoughtful deliberation and careful consideration of multiple perspectives in order to achieve the intellectual maturation that instant gratification, fleeting Internet notoriety, or sheer glibness rarely yields.

And just what are YOUR thoughts on these matters? I'd love to hear what others think about how social media use may be altering perceptions and behaviors, especially in academic contexts.

The Lake Effect: A WAC Blog



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