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?