A Web of Shortcuts and Lies

Shortcut ImageThe Web has made it easier than ever to create content, reach an audience, build a business or just plain have your voice heard.

But what hasn’t changed is that it still takes time, energy and work to create some special. Anyone can set up a Wix account and throw up a few pages and open an online business in an afternoon. It takes someone dedicated to hone their craft, produce countless pages of valuable content and the personal relationships that make a site truly great.

Still, we’ve come a long way to removing the barriers to publication. When I developed my first site 20 years ago, the process was clunky and awkward. You were very limited in what you could do without at least basic understanding of HTML (I still have my HTML 3.2 book) and most development was still done by hand.

Today, anyone can have a blog, forum, or other site up and running in minutes. Content management tools make it easy to publish, modern themes make them easy to customize and social networking gives you a starting audience.

But while removing barriers to publication is, on the whole, a great thing, it’s had an unwanted side effect. It’s created an entire culture on the Web that craves success, has the tools to be dangerous, but neither the skill nor the drive to truly be productive with it.

While it’s easy to dismiss this as nothing more than a mill for garbage sites no one visits, the truth is that it’s also led to a rampant plagiarism, copyright infringement and a lot of poor-quality sites.

Because many who take the Web’s shortcuts don’t stop at the ethical ones and cut a variety of other corners, some of which cut very deep.

A Portrait of a Plagiarist

In 2011 I posted an article about the types of hosts that plagiarists used. I discussed that, in my experience, most of the text and image copyright infringement happens free or low-cost sites. Social networks, free blog hosts, low-cost web hosts and so forth. Even for business plagiarists, most tend to stick to lower costs hosts, in particular ones that make getting set up easier.

In 2013, I followed up with another article saying that Facebook was the future of plagiarism. In the time since, I’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of DMCA notices I’ve filed with Facebook as many have used the service as a free replacement or supplement for a website.

In both of the articles I used the same phrase “the path of least resistance” (Note: I also used it in a 2008 article about offering embedding as a way to reduce plagiarism.). That is an excellent way to describe the way most online plagiarists work.

The hosting and business choices of plagiarists make it pretty clear. Most plagiarists are not evil masterminds trying to get rich off the backs of other content creators, they’re seeking the easiest path to their goals and if that path takes them through your content, so be it.

In fact, many aren’t evil at all. They’re individuals who want or need a website and created one using the aforementioned tools but had no idea what to do with it. They’re akin to a person being given a brand new car without ever having been taught how to drive.

So, if you’re looking for a portrait of your typical plagiarist, you’re looking for someone with a goal who appreciates the shortcuts that the web provides but either lack the appreciation or the understanding of the process itself. Plagiarists want to reap the benefits of having a site while doing as little of the work as possible.

While this isn’t exactly groundbreaking plagiarism psychology, it does help us understand why this new Web seems to be bringing the plagiarists out of the woodwork and what we can do to deter them.

Lowered Bars

Twenty years ago, learning HTML was a hard limit to posting on the Web. You could not build a functional website if you didn’t at least understand some about how sites were built and coded. You could copy and paste to cut some corners, but the knowledge had to be there at some point.

Creating content, however, is not a hard limit. Anyone who is willing to ignore the legal and ethical problems, can copy content from anywhere and fill their pages. All it takes is understanding how to copy and paste.

Over the past 20 years we’ve reduced or eliminated many of the hard limits to setting up shop online. Cost, technical know how and even effort are no longer barriers to building websites. If you aren’t looking to build something great and are fine with a mediocre site (that looks like countless others), you can be up and running for free in a matter of minutes. If you want to fill that site with content, you can just turn to other sites and copy/paste.

While lowering these bars has been a true boon for the Web, opening up opportunities for many wonderful people who never would have been able to participate otherwise, it’s also attracted a large number of people who are more interested in getting to their goal quick. Whether that goal is getting rich, being famous or just having a site in general, they don’t care about the process or being great at it, just about getting it done.

This has not only led to an epidemic of plagiarism (nearly every small business I know on the Web has had their content lifted) but also of shoddy business practices. This hurts both customers and legitimate competitors.

Though it would be easy to say that the marketplace will sort this out and bad players will be pushed to the bottom, the marketplace online is dominated by a combination of Google and social media, both of which can be gamed. Many of the sites and tools commonly used by plagiarists do very well in both arenas, making them a real threat to legitimate, established businesses.

For some, the Internet is nothing more than a Web of shortcuts and if we’re going to improve the quality of the sites that we need to understand that and try to counteract it.

Blunting the Problem

The problem is that, while we’ve lowered hard limits to getting a site online, not nearly as much work has been done to help new publishers fill it. It’s akin to making it easier to acquire a canvas without offering any help in putting the paint on it.

Providers of free and low cost tools can actually do a lot to ensure that their tools are used correctly, while actually providing a better service to their customers. Consider the following:

  1. Free Stock Image Libraries: Unfortunately, the most common place new webmasters get images from is Google. Providing a robust, free and built-in library of correctly licensed images can discourage that, making it easier to be legitimate than infringing.
  2. Integrate Creative Commons and Other Open Licenses: Next, providers can make it easy to find, add and attribute open-licensed works such as articles, images and videos. Zemanta, for example, has a plugin that does some of this for standalone WordPress installations,
  3. but tools like this could, theoretically, be introduced into all platforms.

  4. Tools That Encourage Legitimate Content Reuse: As we discussed previously with the WordPress Press This tool, applications and tools that are used to bring in outside content can and should help steer users to make legal and ethical use of the work of others. That goes for all companies and all types of sites.
  5. Built-in Plagiarism Detection: With tools for spotting duplicative text widely available and relatively inexpensive, it is possible to check posts and pages for duplication before publication. While blocking copied text is probably too far, a warning indicating that much of the text is copied and suggesting ways to better use the content, may guide some novice webmasters.
  6. Real Content Creation Assistance: Finally, web hosting providers can think of ways that they can help their users fill their sites. Everything from writing tips to ideas for articles or even freely licensed templates that they can use. Make it so that users know what they want to put on their site and feel comfortable that they can do it both well and easily.

The problem with all of these steps is simple: They cost money.

Most free and low-cost hosting solutions are already operating on low margins so the idea of shelling out money for stock photos or plagiarism detection tools seems insane. However, the goal of a web host, especially one that aims to make it easy to build a site, shouldn’t be to just help a site get online, but to help that site be great.

Besides, the alternative results in a slew of DMCA notices and other abuse complaints that also cost money and time to deal with, not to mention that they result in customers’ sites being shuttered every day.

Helping new webmasters fill their pages legitimately not only helps their sites be great, but helps them grow and helps keep them online. This helps encourage advertisers to look at the site and other webmasters to look at the possibility of premium accounts.

It’s easy to see how these types of improvements could be a huge win-win for hosts and users alike.

Bottom Line

Technology has made it easier than ever to set up shop online. Anyone can do it.

However, in doing that we’ve made having the website the end game without a thought about what should go on it. We’ve created a web of shortcuts that, sometimes, leads people to take content that isn’t theirs.

To fix that, we need to make the next phase about developing tools and processes that help people fill their pages legitimately and with high-quality work. While not everyone is a poet or a photographer, they should feel comfortable that the work they post is legal and high quality.

Hopefully the next revolution on the web will not be just about new templates or gizmos, but about tools that can make websites full and great. Slideshows and responsive designs are great, but they are meaningless without things to put in them.

Let’s do more than get people online, let’s make them creators.

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