Copycats: The Oral Tradition of Blogging

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Ever notice how bloggers seem to repeat each other? Sometimes the echo chamber sparks veiled rumors of plagiarism, or at other times great discourse ensues, riffing off the same theme, each with their own take. This copycat syndrome seems to repeat itself through the years, a mostly unintentional repetition of the same story and memes. It’s almost as if bloggers have reverted their conversations to the epic oral storytelling era of legends like Beowulf and the Odyssey.

Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is one of the most fascinating books about the evolution of storytelling, from the epic tradition of repetitive storytelling by bards and nomads to the impact of the written word. Before the written word, repetitive storytelling was necessary to ensure information was captured and maintained by societies. With the written word, memories could be kept in books and in libraries.

In recent times, digital media has created a massive influx of information — for example, the amount of business data is doubling every 1.2 years — much of it user generated. This has occurred in context with a decline in traditional journalism. There’s so much information that it is being processed in shorter sound bites, and increasingly on smaller screens. News and intelligence is often referred these days. People are having a harder time processing the amount of data in their lives as well as discerning quality, relying more and more on their social networks for information they can trust.

In the social ecosphere, we are regressing towards an oral-based retelling of the same story, perhaps simply so we can retain it. Notice that the repetitiveness happens with new wrinkles or different colors over the years. It’s back to the tribe and its bards and nomads for data. The only difference is it happens digitally.

Need evidence of the impact on original stories? Consider Rich Becker’s Fresh Content Project, and examination of the communications content marketplace. Rich found that the most popular content was not quality-based original pieces, rather it was recycled stories retold by the most popular voices. Bloggers producing the most original content were by far not the most popular ones.

Maybe the reasons are simple. In an oral culture, there are only so many stories a culture can retain. Or as Gini Dietrich states, maybe it’s because everyone is taking the easy way out, and as Danny brown intimated bloggers are crafting their work to be injected into the social network referral machine. Maybe the echo chamber really did run out of content, and there is nothing more to say about social media. Whatever reasons we debate, the cause seems ingrained in who we are as a species, and how we process overloads of data, whether oral or digitally recorded.

While it is likely that much of the repetition and echo is not Machiavellian in intent, there are those that game the system. Like all villains, they leave their tell-tale signs of plagiarism — no links, an unwillingness to shine credit on others in their content, and a consistent positioning of self as the oracle of all knowledge. There’s not much to say about that other than to comment on their blog and ask the necessary questions. But more often than not, it’s unintentional, the echo reverberating through the chamber.

What can be scary about this repetition is that the “good referred stories” may not be grounded in reality. And that’s when whole sectors are led by their digital bards off the proverbial cliff. Unlike the oral era, data is still being recorded. Perhaps we will find a new way of retention, verification and access that will empower more forward thinking stories. One can only hope.

What do you think of the echo chamber, and the repetition of the same old same old on the blogosphere?

27 Replies to “Copycats: The Oral Tradition of Blogging”

  1. So true Geoff.

    In some circles its gotten to the point where we can actually predict who will write about certain companies next.

    Predicting what the echo-chamber will discuss next is a bit harder…. We went from discussing Groupon to Quora and now Empire Avenue. I mean, what’s next? Heh.

  2. I was recently asked to write for a pretty well-known blog in our sector and my post idea evidently has been regurgitated in several formats since 2007…it has pushed me to think more on the subject, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it bothers me that it’s near impossible to find original material for research on a topic.

    I’m like Cliff Claven on Cheers, I carry around a really stupid amount of trivial knowledge in my huge head, so I’m always looking for new content to read, things to learn, etc. But what’s the use if I can tell you, as Sean said, who is going to write what and when? Give me something to make me think and work. Stop being lazy, folks.

    1. I am not sure you are Cliff Claven. We all have our view, our own experience and context to add to the fabric of a story. But telling new stories, well that’s hard as we have seen. I look forward to what you produce, Stacey.

      1. That brings up another point that I always go on about; we’re all molded by our backgrounds, the environment we grew up in, where we grew up, our cultures, etc. and it will come out in some manner in our writings some time or another.

      2. That brings up another point that I always go on about; we’re all molded by our backgrounds, the environment we grew up in, where we grew up, our cultures, etc. and it will come out in some manner in our writings some time or another.

  3. Geoff – Two thoughts:

    1) My undergrad honors thesis on Catalan Language Planning and Policy was a solid 45 pages long. 36 pages of that was background research, explaining and studying what those before me had done in order to craft two new points which took up around five pages in total and then another four pages was written about what might happen next.The best people take what has already been said and discovered before them and add that one special tweak of view that the original person left out. I’d argue and say there are few truly brand new ideas. We are constantly influenced and inspired but what we’ve seen before and build on that for the future.

    2) The echo chamber is how ideas reach critical mass. Before, if someone had a great thought, we talked to each other about it. I called my mom and said “Isn’t this product/thought/idea awesome?” now, I write about it because I have my own little platform.

    Awesome topic to think on, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Some interesting ideas, Ryan, which I will think about. I love the research context you bring to the discussion. As to making ideas achieve critical mass, how about when it’s time to retire them? Or is popularity more important than new ideas. Do old ideas compete with new ideas and hold them back because we as a culture are afraid of change? I’m not sure. Many threads to follow.

  4. I became a bit offended as I was reading this. I don’t know if you meant to scold me personally or not. If so, I’ll just say
    the op-eds and personal essays I put on my site aren’t social media
    echo chamber stuff and they are, at all times, original. But I don’t
    link in my paragraphs because I find in-text links disruptive to the
    reading process and an element that is adding to the degradation of our
    attention spans (Plus, in true social media marketing theory, why would a
    writer want to link her reader out and away from her site before said
    reader is done reading?). My posts at times have links to more
    information at the end of the post, but mostly they are meant to educate
    and offer food for thought. If you weren’t addressing media psychology
    bloggers like me, then I’ll assume you are in fact complaining about the
    lack of quality op-eds that offer no new thoughts on social media. True
    thought leaders are hard to come by, for sure; We must expect a large
    amount of echo in any endeavor. Perhaps you can offer us a list of
    people whose blogs you appreciate, and perhaps a list of those you feel
    are just echoing and not adding to the canon, as it were. That would be
    the true original content that you could offer here. ;-)

    1. If you read my blog more often you will see that two weeks ago I offered a list of eight bloggers I recommend. As to the feeling offended, I am sorry but I still see content that doesn’t link as a bit of an afront If you can’t source, then you are plagiarizing to some extent. I seriously doubt that every piece of content you offer is 100% original.

      1. I RSS your blog, Geoff. I just must have missed it. Perhaps I was looking more for the darker side of who you think stink! LOL. As for totally original content, I’m sure you’ve seen the theories on this – that nothing is original, etc. Individual intent matters, then, and I’m sure most people are under the illusion that they are offering their own thoughts. As for links out, that just is too much work, as I’d have to link out to the entire psychology, sociology and Internet canon. One of the things I offer is my synthesis of years of research and tech knowledge. I suppose I could link out to “further reading” and I’ll definitely consider doing this, but I am at a point professionally that I don’t feel as though I have to prove myself or offer evidence for my opinions. They are just opinions, after all, and I’m no spring chicken that needs to explain myself in order to wrestle respect from my elders. I’m confident in my education and background. But as I said, I think perhaps you are speaking more of people who are out there playing the “social media consultant” game and not so much of bloggers like me.

        1. Great response. I will read your site before saying more. I cannot comment intelligently beyond that. I will say that I am very, very skeptical when I see a site with no footnotes or links. There are always exceptions to the rule.

  5. You make some great points here, but I’d like to offer a more positive perspective. First, it’s notable I stumbled across this blog post because of a twitter link by @ryanknapp:disqus (who made the first comment above), showing the “echo chamber” serves the purpose of spreading ideas we otherwise might not find. Secondly, my most recent post, coincidentally about storytelling, was admittedly a re-packaging of someone else’s post on storytelling — but I credited that first post and adapted it to fit my particular audience (attorneys). My point is that while you raise some very legitimate concerns and point out the “villains,” there’s an upside to retelling and repackaging this information. One hopes that, in the aggregate, it’s on balance more for enlightenment than self-promotion. And speaking of self promotion ;-) here’s the link to my blog post I mentioned, http://cogentlegal.com/blog/2011/05/10/storytelling-for-attorneys-how-to-build-a-great-narrative-for-your-case/

    1. OK, I was jiving with you until you dropped the link with an emoticon.

      Besides that, I agree that some good ideas do make it out there, but if you dig deeper into Rich Becker’s analysis, you will see that the context of originality with traffic shows that the social network retweet, share, bookmark culture rewards recycled content far more often than original content.

      As to the villains, well the bad apples always seem to ruin the barrel, or at least degrade its pleasant smell, don’t they?

  6. The only people who perceive it as an echo chamber are those who have seen the content before. For those seeing an idea for the first time, it’s simply interesting.

    1. Yes, and if your site is for beginners then so it is not beyond the expectation of echoing.

  7. I love this post. Everything is consisting becoming more the same. While some people can hang their hats on the concept that everything is built upon and therefore copied, it might worthwhile to consider that many of the copycats don’t add any perspective or new insight. They simply duplicate the content, shift the structure, and then claim it all as their own.

  8. I feel like I’ve read this somewhere before…

    Just kidding, Geoff. One of the many excuses I have for never blogging is that I don’t feel I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. I’m much more inclined to share something written by someone more knowledgeable, more experienced, or who simply says what I’ve been thinking… better than I could say it.

    I will add that it seems as though the echo chamber pretty much only exists in the world of “probloggers”, marketing and PR. Maybe blogging about blogging has a limited life cycle.

  9. I feel like I’ve read this somewhere before…

    Just kidding, Geoff. One of the many excuses I have for never blogging is that I don’t feel I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. I’m much more inclined to share something written by someone more knowledgeable, more experienced, or who simply says what I’ve been thinking… better than I could say it.

    I will add that it seems as though the echo chamber pretty much only exists in the world of “probloggers”, marketing and PR. Maybe blogging about blogging has a limited life cycle.

  10. I feel like I’ve read this somewhere before…

    Just kidding, Geoff. One of the many excuses I have for never blogging is that I don’t feel I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. I’m much more inclined to share something written by someone more knowledgeable, more experienced, or who simply says what I’ve been thinking… better than I could say it.

    I will add that it seems as though the echo chamber pretty much only exists in the world of “probloggers”, marketing and PR. Maybe blogging about blogging has a limited life cycle.

  11. I think that’s my issue with all of this…the people who game the system. I guess it’s hard for people to be original and creative. And sometimes inspiration hits by something you’ve read. But it’s the gaming the system and the repetition without original thought that kill me.

  12. How much of this has to do with the fact that many of the top bloggers have deep relationships amongst themselves? Their ideas, their language and discursive style, will inevitably influence one another.

    Despite this, I think it’s possible to retain originality if you carve out a unique angle on an idea — version it for a specific audience, for example. Many bloggers do this quite effectively (giving their ideas the appearance of “sameness,” when in fact the immediate resonance is actually much higher.)

    1. There is some truth to this.  They are very tight.  But I also see it as a function of who we are as people because I don’t  see the behavior pattern ss unique historically or within this industry.

  13. I have been noticing this lately – in fact, I wrote a post recently about how people look down their nose at certain kinds of posts but then retweet those kinds of posts the most often. What is that all about?

    I do my best to offer my own unique perspective. Sometimes it’s in line with what other bloggers are saying, and I worry that people think I got the muse from that person when in reality we just happened to be on the same wavelength. But there definitely is not a lot of food trickling down to the people trying to make their content 100% original. It can be quite discouraging to see posts with 75 grammatical errors getting more traction than yours.

    The bottom line though is that you have to write what you feel like you need to write. I really believe that. If you feel like writing for traffic is what you need to do right now, I can’t really get in your way and say, “Duh, what a stupid thing to do.” But I do wish there was more of an openness for new kinds of perspectives and posts sometimes.

    1. I am sure a lot of it is subconscious and not intentional. The more I think about this issue it is very natural to support an echo chamber of sorts. It is unnatural to be original.  Take from that what you will! But as @ginidietrich:disqus said, it is the intentional supporting of this system that drives me crazy!

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