In August 2011, Miss India Universe Vasuki Sunkavialli came under fire for “twagiarism”, or plagiarism on Twitter. At issue was a series of seven tweets she posted, out of her first 29 to her account, where she appeared to copy, without attribution, from Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume.
When the omission was pointed out, Sunkavialli said she didn’t feel she had done anything wrong and that it was exactly what other people did on Twitter. However, it was quickly noted that what she was doing was not “retweeting”, but rather, just copying and pasting without attribution. Eventually Sunkavialli and Dhume made peace, with Dhume saying that Sunkavialli could learn from the incident.
But while Sunkavialli may be one of the best known cases of someone being accused of “twagiarism”, she is far from the only one. Twitter is, if nothing else, a sharing culture. One where people post short messages, links, images, videos, etc. that they want to share with their followers.
However, the Twitter community places a very high value on authorship. Though sharing or repeating a message is considered a high honor, that’s only the case when it is done correctly and with proper attribution.
Long before Twitter added a “Retweet” function in 2009, Twitter users had created their own system for handling retweets, namely copying the earlier tweet and prefacing it with “RT @(username)” and sending it. If a tweet had to be modified, often for brevity, one could use MT, or “Modified Tweet” to indicate as such.
This approach stemmed from a grassroots effort by Twitter’s users, during the service’s earlier years, to find ways to share what others were saying while maintaining attribution and fitting it all within 140 characters.
In that regard, Twitter is a very interesting case study in how plagiarism and attribution rules form in a community. Though, to an outsider, it might seem as if Twitter is a place that plays fast and loose with authorship, it actually holds to a strict set of internal rules and routinely calls out those who violate them.
While this might give newcomers concern that they might be considered a twagiarist, it is actually easier than ever to attribute and reuse content correctly on the service. The Retweet function makes it simple to take an item someone else posted and redistribute it to your followers, all the while, keeping attribution intact.
In fact, to your followers, the retweet looks just like the original, with that person’s name and icon. The only indication it’s a retweet from you is in smaller text near the bottom.
By simply using the retweet function when you want to pass along someone else’s tweet to your audience, you can completely avoid any issues of attribution.
Still, the fact that the Twitter community so quickly set up standards for attribution, long before Twitter itself created the process, only serves to show how important attribution is, even in a culture that’s centered around open sharing.
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