Watching Attribution Erode on Twitter

Recently a Twitter use @FunFlood, tweeted me a link they had posted on their blog entitled, “Case Study: Tracking a Stolen Tweet” that makes an interesting example of just how attribution, once lost, can be almost impossible to recover on the Web.

The case study follows a single tweet put out by user @Haleys_Hell (NSFW Language Warning) on August 7th of this year. The tweet went as follows:

I once had a goldfish that would hump the carpet, but only for about 30 seconds.

The tweet became something of a small sensation, shooting quickly to 100 favorites and earning a lot of retweets. However, not all mentions of the tweet carried with it proper attribution. FunFlood looked at some six days of the tweet’s history, starting on August 12th, and noticed that many of the tweets lacked credit for the joke or gave incorrect attribution.

While this isn’t terribly surprising, what is interesting about it is how the attribution eroded away. On the first few days of tracking, nearly all the tweets were either true retweets or attributed tweets (using RT @ format). However, after a few days, it was the unattributed tweet and the misattributed tweets that were winning out, growing to the point that, on the last day of tracking, there were no correctly attributed tweets at all.

This process was spurred ahead by at least two Twitter power users, one with over 75,000 followers and another a professional NFL player, who both used the tweet without attribution, highlighting the impact just one or two people can have if they reuse a work inappropriately.

In short, a handful of people who reposted the tweet without attribution (for whatever reason, benign or sinister) created a snowball effect that caused the latter tweets to give no credit at all. Since the exact wording of the tweet appears to be original, it’s a pretty interesting case study to watch.

But what fascinates me with this is that Twitter, in many ways, is a microcosm for the rest of the Web, one that moves at a much quicker pace.

It’s not hard to imagine that, instead of a tweet, we were talking about a poem, a blog post or a photograph. As it gets passed around on the Web, attribution sometimes gets left off and, eventually, the new posts are more and more likely to be unattributed or misattributed. This is due to the increasing numbers of poorly-attributed uses of the work.

However, on the larger Web, the process wouldn’t be nearly as quick, at least in most cases, nor would it be nearly as drastic. Due to the short lifespan of tweets, the attributed one probably died off and became irrelevant earlier than almost any other medium.

To be clear, I don’t think all or even much of these attirbution issues are intentional and I’m not sure about calling the post “Tracking a Stolen Tweet” because there are many reasons for attribution to get hacked off, especially on Twitter. That being said, the effect is often the same for creators whether the intent is nefarious or not.

Still, it’s an interesting case study about attribution on the Web and how a single tweet can, over the course of a few days, go from being well-attributed to not being attributed at all.

Strange and surprising, but very believable.