There is nothing new under the sun: Is originality important in social media content creation?

By: Brian J. Gaudette

Content theft, especially joke theft, is rampant online.  If something is clever and funny you can bet that it will get rewritten and retweeted hundreds if not thousands of times.  On a day to day basis when we tell jokes or use some clever but regurgitated turn of phrase in our verbal speech, it is socially accepted that we don’t pause to quote the original source…if we even know who that is.  

With that said, is it ethically wrong to post written speech online that was not created within our own minds?  Can anybody own an idea?  Deep truths about the reality of our existence are often articulated by great minds, but do those great minds own the wisdom that they happened to articulate?  The answers to these questions are not entirely clear. 

Since it goes against our widely accepted ethics and laws to steal another’s physical property, I think you could make a compelling case that the line should be clearly drawn where a person knowingly uses someone else’s content for purposes of monetary gain without giving appropriate credit.  It stands to reason that if the content is being used for financial gain that a person is stealing money from another rather than something abstract like an idea or an observation.  So, why is this seemingly obvious line so readily not respected?

You could say that structure of the platforms themselves play a role by arguing that social media has created a space for the exchange of content without a third-party clearing house curating and editing.   An author has a publisher and an editor, and a journalist will has an editor but that level of oversite, filtering, and accountability tends isn’t there for most social media content. I believe the media platforms themselves defiantly play a role, but I also think that this content stealing phenomenon points to a much deeper issue within our society.  Truth is dying a death of a thousand cuts. 

Post modernism, which is reported to have found favor within many universities and especially within the humanities departments, posits that there is no objective truth but only one’s perception of truth and thus all truths are true.  If you follow that same logic then nothing is true…..except for the truth claim that there is no truth.  With these ideas taking hold, conscious or unconscious, we have begun to destabilized the very underpinning of western civilization. We are taking the
self evident truths that created the freest and most prosperous country in that has ever existed on the face of the planet and that also underpin the whole of western civilization and have replaced them with very disorienting and confusing ideas that are not coherent with the reality that we encounter.  With no frame of reference for truth, nothing is sacred.  Not even clever jokes about jogging pants.  Is being factually accurate morally correct? “Being morally correct is more important than being factually accurate” -Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

This Article Has 8 Comments
  1. Matthew McGonegal says:

    Brian, I think this is a very interesting topic that hasn’t been given enough attention. From the Fat Jewish’s plagiarism scandal (I recommend watching “The American Meme” on Netflix) to last year’s tweet-decking scandal, content theft and monetization is an issue that will continue to plague social media sites.

  2. Jared Myers says:

    +1 for American Meme on Netflix. There is serious money to be made from these little images. What does it take to change one of my hilarious tweets (there are tons, believe me) and slap “Fuck Jerry” or “Beige Cardigan” on it? Not much. Look no further than the two competing Netflix/Hulu documentaries on Fyre, where one specifically mentions Eliot Tebele and one makes it a point to never use his name. The man is rich off of memes, probably many of which he did not create.

    I think this is part of why GDPR received a lot of coverage last summer for being a meme killer. is that a bad thing?

    While I think you’re honestly being dramatic with the “end of western civilization” bit, I do think the idea of joke theft vis a vis meme theft is worthy of conversation.

  3. Robert Emmett says:


    This is a very interesting and controversial topic that you focused on and it’s crazy how often this happens on a daily basis. With the massive amount of individuals on social media, utilizing a variety of platforms, it’s hard to determine where content is originally created… and who originally created it. Hopefully in the near future, there will be more regulation when it comes to safeguarding other people’s intellectual property.

  4. Hannah Blair says:


    I thought this blog topic was quite interesting and made vital points to the way people use social media today. I have found copy after copy of the same tweet, and I couldn’t even tell you where or who the original tweet came from. This is definitely a controversial topic, especially since we are expected to give credit to the creator of sorts. Personally, I think there should be more regulation in the social media world, and people should be held to a higher standard.

  5. Abby Wolff says:

    Hi Brain,

    Your insight into the ethics around repurposing content was really interesting. Observing on social media how often people share other people’s content without crediting them can cause a lot of havoc and drama online. I don’t think there’s currently a fair way to determine what content belongs to who, but hopefully they establish that in the future.

  6. Eva Pozarycki says:

    Hi Brian,
    It seems that many people do not see how this topic is a problem and contribute to the problem by praising accounts like @FuckJerry and @BeigeCardigan. I have wondered if there may be more regulation on this issue if content theft continues.

  7. Julianna Bourjeaurd says:

    Hi Brian,

    Content curation is such a curious topic. I recently saw that @TheFatJew constantly gets blown up on all social media platforms for posting people’s work with no accreditation frequently. Since social media is such a big deal and making memes is becoming somewhat of a profession, are legal copyright issues going to arise? It would be crazy to see how that would be dealt with since it seems quite trivial. Would the person who stole the content be sued and that amount be based on the engagement of the post?

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