Matt Gemmell

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Authorship

6 min read

I was recently re-reading an online conversation I had some time ago regarding anonymous comments, and I’d like to expand upon the general issue it raised: that of authorship.

As someone who spends an increasing amount of time writing for the web and for print, there are several ways that attitudes to authorship affect me. Let’s talk about them individually.

Reproduction

I very often find my articles linked to from elsewhere on the internet, which is of course wonderful and the whole point of the web. Referring and responding to what I write is very much encouraged, and I’m always happy to see such references and follow-ups.

Occasionally, and increasingly, though, I find the entire content of a piece reproduced on another site. Putting aside questions of legality, I find the practice extremely rude, annoying, and intellectually dishonest. Each writer has a moral right to control how and where their content is presented, particularly in situations where the presentation approaches passing off one person’s work as another’s.

There are a worrying number of sites that claim to aggregate material on a particular topic, and seem to feel entirely justified in reproducing articles in full (often using the laughable and morally bankrupt justification that you have an RSS feed, so you’ve somehow already given permission for the content to be shown in full elsewhere).

We have a word for that: plagiarism. You can argue the finer points all you like, but that’s what it amounts to. Don’t do it. Link, extract, quote in summary, and ideally contribute some editorial of your own - but don’t just reproduce content.

 Attribution

Choose a segment to quote which summarises the reason you’re interested in the article, and quote it with attribution. A simple link may not be enough to avoid the perception that you’re being sleazy about it, though. Some disturbing current practices include:

  • Quoting without preamble, which is tantamount to passing off. Use a suitable introduction to clearly indicate where the extracted content begins, and/or see the next point.

  • Not quoting explicitly, thus making the quoted content seem to be inline and part of your own piece. Use a blockquote, quotation marks, and/or some design element to indicate the boundaries of extracted work.

  • Bottom-attribution for anything but a relatively brief quote. There’s a certain length after which a quote should be attributed before the quote itself. It’s as much for the reader’s comprehension as anything else, but it’s also a more honest style of reference.

  • Attribution links which don’t mention the author. It’s not sufficient to simply have an unadorned “source” or “via” hyperlink, or even a raw domain name. Attribution isn’t just mechanical; it’s the concept of associating an author with a piece of work.

    The wording of your preamble, link anchor text or otherwise should provide attribution, regardless of whether the reader clicks the link. It’s disingenuous to the point of childishness to claim that a bare “source” link constitutes morally acceptable attribution. Mention the author’s name (first and last).

  • Attribution links which don’t take the reader to the source material. If you’re quoting a particular piece of work, your link should go to that specific piece, unless technically infeasible. A link to a blog’s index page, which will change over time and cause the specific piece to scroll off out of sight and into the past, just isn’t sufficient.

    By providing a generic attribution link, you’re creating the subtle impression that whilst the author is attributed, the specific piece of work may have been created for your own use rather than being published by the author previously. It’s scoop-stealing, and it’s tawdry.

These aren’t rules that any reasonable person needs to memorise; they’re common decency, bred of respect for your fellow human beings. Extend the same scholarly courtesy you’d expect for your own pieces.

Identity

The opposite side of attribution is identity - the claiming of a piece of work as your own when you write it. It’s comparatively rare to see long-form work without the author’s name attached, but the internet is awash with deliberately anonymised comments, tweets and forum postings.

Anonymous (henceforth, meaning either anonymous or the more common pseudonymous) comments are a difficult issue. There are a few limited scenarios where anonymity may be desirable (whistleblower sites, repressive regimes, places with an audience vulnerable for reasons of youth, gender or some other factor), but those are scenarios borne of social problems rather than the core factor of identity. I’m interested in discussing the principle of identity itself, which in the vast majority of online scenarios is the appropriate primary consideration.

The watchword of authorship is accountability. We judge a writer by their words, and we judge words by their writer. The linkage between author and writing is so profound as to call into question the very validity of words without an identifiable author. There’s a fundamental need for traceable, credible, accountable authorship in online writing.

Skirting around the unseemly issue of the kind of half-person who hides behind anonymity as an excuse for bad behaviour (as aptly described by John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory), the use of an obscure nickname or the avoidance of identification presents genuine problems for the material you write.

We’re inseparable from our identities, and our most basic convention for identity is the idea of real name. By using our real names, we immediately convey:

  • Authenticity. The genuineness of an actual person, as represented online. A promotion to actual human status, rather than some half-imagined fleeting caricature or character. There’s a moderating force to authenticity. You have that little bit more of a chance of being treated as a living, breathing person who has valuable insight to provide.

  • Conviction. The sense that you stand by your own words. Notwithstanding the extenuating situations mentioned earlier, there’s almost never a situation where discourse isn’t vastly improved by the use of our real identities. Your name says “I believe sufficiently in what I’m saying to say it as myself”.

  • Lack of presumption. Acknowledging and pre-empting the inevitable remarks about this point being made by someone whose middle name is ‘Legend’, there’s a certain childishness to online nicknames. Yes, you may have been called Captain or Nitro or Skull since the dawn of the internet, but for goodness’ sake: your name is Colin.

    I can deal with you on the basis of being Colin, but it’s difficult to take your nickname seriously. Everything you say is implicitly suffixed with “but then, I’m a person who calls himself Nitro”. That’s not the impression you ever want to convey.

One argument I’ve heard in favour of anonymous comments is that of privacy. I confess to not really understanding the relevance; it’s a bit of a “have your cake and eat it” sort of proposition.

I can understand (to some degree) the desire to not provide contact information for the sake of avoiding direct follow-ups or spam, but that’s a separate issue from identity. Privacy is a right, but also a responsibility - you must take reasonable steps to maintain your own privacy. If you’re so concerned with privacy that you don’t wish to use your own name online, then you’re choosing to sacrifice the credibility and accountability that your real identity conveys.

Some blogs (this one currently included) will allow you to make that choice, but I can equally see some very convincing reasons for banning anonymous or pseudonymous contributions entirely. It’s not a matter of you having a right to privacy and thus to post anonymous comments; if it’s anonymous, then it isn’t you who’s commenting at all. It’s someone else, or rather no-one.

To equate a desire for privacy with a wish to comment anonymously is confused thinking. A comment is a view or an opinion; it’s inherently of a person. It just doesn’t make sense to me to allow comments without attribution, and I don’t understand the (actual) motivation behind wanting to do so. Everything anyone ever says is attributable to the person who said it. It’s not possible to separate authorship from the words.

If your concept of privacy extends to not being able to have any public opinions attributable to you, then the logical course of action is to not participate in public discussions. I think that “privacy” in the context of comments on the web is almost always just a crutch for lack of conviction, cowardliness or even (dare I say it) paranoia.

I’m not saying that anonymous information can’t have value - it clearly can; for example: I have no idea who specifically wrote the owner’s manual for my car, but it still successfully tells me what all the controls on the dashboard do - but rather, that comments (which I’d say are overwhelmingly opinions/feedback/views) have no weight without attribution.

Your opinion isn’t yours unless you’re part of it. For the vast majority of situations when dealing with comments (i.e. reader-submitted addenda or responses to a piece of writing), I’d say that attribution is what makes a view have value. When I comment on your blog, or talk to you on Twitter or anywhere else, it’ll be as Matt Gemmell - or a username that’s as close to my name as I can make it (for several examples, here’s my contact info).

My blog isn’t a democracy, but I’m eager to actually engage in a conversation with you. So, please: provide your real name. Leave the nickname on Xbox Live. Providing a URL is very desirable, for a blog, Twitter account or profile page - something that identifies and expands upon you.

Of course, the best comment of all is a follow-up, be it a brief thought on Twitter, or (even better) an article on your own blog which sends a trackback.

Own your identity, and make sure your words are always tagged with it. Stand by what you write, be accountable, and moderate your impulsive need to respond by considering the value of your reputation. The internet will be a better place, and your views will be read with more willingness to engage and a deeper respect for you as a person.

You can quote me on that.