Social media hashtag rageathons: a social justice tool or digital villagers with torches & pitchforks?

In internet parlance, they’ve been called ‘Twitter storms‘ and ‘Tweakouts‘ (freak outs) but always seem to follow the same pattern. A real or perceived slight, often involving plagiarism and alleged copyright infringement, is announced on a social platform and via a web-based echo chamber, Twitter retweeting and Facebook fan pages, it becomes an internet cacophony that is impossible to ignore. Especially if you happen to be the hapless subject of all the noise and whether you’re guilty of the alleged transgression or not.

Internet Davids vs. Corporate Goliaths?

While it’s easy to appreciate the avenging angel vibe of these events when they occur, and the idea of some David bringing another Goliath to their knees is appealing to most of us, seems to me that there’s an awful large risk for abuse, either deliberate or by well-intentioned folks that get things partially. mostly or completely wrong. The broken telephone, 140 character editing of Twitter ‘tweets’ can also change the original message dramatically. A Twitter Storm that began as “so-and-so’s design is very similar to so-and-so’s design” can quickly evolve into a hash-tagged “so-&-so is a thief, stole so-&-so’s work and shld B put in jail #thief #crook #asshat“. With the relative anonymity of social media platforms, the multi-jurisdictional legal aspects and questions about who’s responsible for what, it seems like a self-policing phenomenon that’s ripe for trashing the reputation of people that might not deserve it. And even if they do, without the generally accepted principle of “being innocent until proven guilty“.

You know, lawyers, judges, courts and lawsuits.

Trashing reps at the speed of fiber optic cable.

With the speed that internet freakouts can blow up, and the viral nature of how they blow up, it can literally take a few seconds before half the world thinks you’re a complete and utter tool. And they’re telling their friends that you’re a #tool and a #thief. Who are telling their friends that you’re a #tool, a #thief an #asshole and a #crook. And so on. So that’s the questions we’re going to ask this afternoon. Is social media a social justice tool, or an internet age version of villagers with torches and pitchforks, straight out of the 1931 horror classic, Frankenstein, as they stormed the scientist’s castle, looking for Boris Karloff‘s take on the famous monster? Can social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter be used as a digital age copyright enforcement too, or does it wander too close to mob justice for comfort? We’ll take a look at several recent ‘Twitter Storms‘ that seem to prove the former, and one not-so-recent event that implies the latter.

What is social media?

What exactly is social media? I’m not sure really, but it seems to involve any web-driven platform that allows you to socialize with fans, like-minded colleagues, friends, critics and hopefully (according to those who are still trying to monetize the new phenomenon) customers looking for your services. Wikipedia defines social media as

“Media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses Internet and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.”

Think services like Twitter and Facebook. As The Logo Factory‘s go-to guy, I’m sorta involved in social media, if you count maintaining a logo design blog, carping on Twitter, and posting links to the occasional article via our Facebook page, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a social media expert of any merit. More of a socal media luddite actually, but that doesn’t stop me finding some social media ‘events’ interesting, or notable, especially how they pertain to design. One of the more fascinating aspects of social media is when it’s used as a sort of copyright enforcement tool, a way for the little guy to take on people, sometimes much bigger guys, who’ve ripped their design work.

Problogger logo gets knocked off.

problogger logoIf you run a blog, or know anything at all about blogging, you’ve probably heard, or read, something about Problogger. Published and managed by Australian-based Darren Rowse, a “full time Blogger making a living from this new and dynamic mediumthe blog boasts an enormous following and subscriber base. Rowse is followed on Twitter by over 90,000 fans, and in the blog world, he’s a really big deal. You’d think with such a high profile, Rowse would be immune to people knocking off his stuff, particularly his logo. No-one could possibly be that stupid, right? Ahm, no. Butchering Scott Adams‘ famous quote, it’s safe to say problogger-knock-offthat “you can never underestimate the stupidity of some people with an internet connection and a website” because back in February, it began to look like someone had knocked off at least parts of Rowse’s logo. Like most instances of copyright claims and counterclaims, it usually comes down to who had designed the logo in question first. In this case, there was very little doubt. Makalu Media had aleady blogged about the logo design process almost two years ago, outlining how they built the Problogger logo from sketches to digital (worth a read on its own merit if you’re interested in designing logos). That post was then announced on the Problogger site around the same time, as part of the Rowse’s new brand rollout. Anyhoo, there’s no doubt who this was designed for, who it was designed by, and more importantly, when it was designed. No doubt whatsoever. So why, Problogger fans wondered (very loudly and often) did some new outfit called have a logo that looked remarkably like the logo that Problogger had been using for almost two years?

People on Twitter went nuts (some of the Twitter Storm caused by the perceived knock-off is outlined here). Rowse’s followers (and he has many) were quick to jump onto the Facebook fan page wall, uploading images that illustrated the similarities between the two designs, while commenting that needed to answer the allegations, change their logo, or both. After first ignoring the mounting complaints, denying any knowledge of the alleged plagiarism, then downloading the blame to some poor designer who was supposedly “over influenced” by the Problogger mark, finally up and changed the logo. And while the Tweakout has died down, the heart of the matter addressed to the satisfaction of those “tweaking out”, there’s a lot of blog posts, Twitter twatter and fan page comments that outline the controversy floating around. They’ll be in search engines and news aggregators for a long time and might place’s reputation in purgatory if you happen to be searching for, well, Certainly, one could argue they had it coming and that they’re the victims of their own hubris. I think that’s the position I’d take I suppose, but what if it’s the Twitter Storm that disappears from view instead, leaving only initial, and blanket denials from the alleged copycat, said denials casting aspersions on the person, or firm, that was originally knocked-off? Witness another event from last month.

The Hidden World of Eloise vs. Paperchase.

UK readers will undoubtedly know who Paperchase is. For those who don’t, let’s just crib their website about us page that states

“Paperchase is the undisputed retail brand leader in design led and innovative stationery in the UK.”

that has “over 80 outlets in the UK and an extensive opening (program) in the USA“. In any David vs. Goliath scenario, Paperchase are definitely Goliath. So let’s meet David. The wonderfully talented illustrator Hidden Eloise who displays her uniquely-styled work on her Hide & Seek. The Hidden World of Eloise website.

Hidden Eloise Paperchase

Back on February 10th, Eloise opened this story by telling us that Paperchase were featuring artwork (above right) that looked very similar to parts of her He says he can hear the Forest whisper (above left) illustration on notebooks, albums and tote bags being sold throughout the UK through Paperchase retail outlets. Apparently, Eloise had contacted Paperchase and asked them to stop (something the company denies) but rather than complying, added more items with the disputed artwork on them (something the company also denies). Big fish ignores little fish with a beef. Not a terribly uncommon scenario when it comes to this kind of stuff. Enter Twitter. After reading about the issue on Eloise’s blog, Neil Gaiman, a fantasy writer, issued this Twitter missive –

“Fascinating Paperchase plagiarism over at Bad Paperchase.”

That was it. But with almost 1.5 million people following Gaiman, and many of them ‘retweeting’ his post, didn’t take long for the issue to go viral, becoming a trending topic in a matter of hours.

By dinner time the story had spooled into the mainstream press. In an article entitled “Paperchase forced to deny it ‘plagiarised’ British artist’s work after Twitter campaign” company executive Timothy Melgund told the Telegraph UK that the company had received hundreds of complaints, with some of them being “very aggressive”. The Independent UK also wrote about the story, and in that article a Paperchase spokesperson complained about how “cock-eyed” allegations had spread “like wildfire” through Twitter. “We’ve had the most unbelievable amount of emails this afternoon of extraordinary vitriol – and we haven’t actually done anything wrong. It must have damaged people’s perception of us.” At one point, the company was being bombarded with negative messages at such a furious rate, they had to disable their website contact form, replacing it with a message that attempted to explain their side of things. Had to change the message several times too as the situation evolved, claiming at first there was no plagiarism, then outlining how they had purchased the art from some second party without knowledge of any plagiarism. Paperchase held on to that position for a few days until the designer of the supposedly copied work fessed up in a message to Hidden Eloise that they had, in fact, “traced” portions of the illustration. Paperchase announced that they were suspending the sale of products featuring the disputed illustrations, and Gathernomoss, the design firm that had developed the work, offered to turn over any money they had made through the sale to Eloise. A victory for the little guys? Perhaps. Over the long haul? Perhaps not.

Initial Twitter support tends to cool very quickly.

Trouble is, now that the blow up has cooled down somewhat, and the Twitter timeline has moved onto other things, Eloise tells us in a ‘tiny’ update that

“All the damaging comments they made about me are still online in newspapers and blogs around the world, and will be for the foreseeable future.”

The Paperchase contact page has been returned to its original form, any mention of the Eloise situation purged from its HTML. There’s still a few Twitpic images to be found, but the chances of them being found are almost nil. That’s not to say Paperchase escapted the dustup unscatched. Under a ‘Controversy” heading the Wikipedia entry on the company has this to say:

“In February 2010 the company was accused of stealing artwork created by an independent British artist – [5] Hidden Eloise. [6] An artist working for the agency Gather No Moss eventually admitted tracing the artwork.[7] The items based on the copied artwork are no longer available from Paperchase.”

But even then, at least according to Eloise, the wiki entry links to a “sensationalistic article, complete with ugly propaganda against (her)” and she sums the episode with this poignant statement

“Other than you, the people who come and directly learn the truth from my blog, who else knows the whole story? Not many people I bet, and Paperchase would be happy to keep it that way.”

She also wonders “what to say to a company that is responsible for a dirty war against my credibility and integrity but are again very comfortable to lay low and hope that the storm will pass?” Bottom line, even though some of the parties ponied up to “tracing” her image, and that “traced” image was sold on Paperchase goods, apparently Eloise didn’t receive a dime in the way of compensation (other than a check for £350 from the original firm,) even when she suggested the profits of the Paperchase goods be donated to charity. And even though half of Twitter, a couple of large UK newspapers and dozens of art blogs managed to stir up a hornet’s nest of bad vibery for Paperchase, it appears temporary, and other than the disputed tote bags and trinkets being removed from retail shelves, no real justice was doled out. For that, Eloise will probably have to go the old-fashioned route.

Alas, David vs. Goliath legal battles can get very expensive for David. Which brings us to the next internet plagiarism hullabaloo, this time featuring the son of a rock legend.

Nick Simmons gets keelhauled for alleged over-inspiration.

Nick Simmons, the son of Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, is quite an accomplished comic book illustrator and writer, having contributed a story for his father’s Gene Simmons House of Horrors back in 2007. He also inked a deal with comic book and graphic novel company, Radical Publishing. for new material via the Simmons Comic Group. So far, so good. Simmons developed a manga-influenced story about a group of immortal creatures, titling it Incarnate, which was previewed at the San Diego Comic-Con International last July, and was released a month later to generally positive reviews. Fast forward to last month, when the internet (at least the comic-centric portion of the internet) blew up over a simple forum post (now removed) that alleged Simmons had cribbed panels from other titles, most notably Kubo Tite’s Bleach, apparently (at least according to my daughter) a very big deal in the Manga world. A very big deal indeed.
simmons bleach manga artThe comment gained traction through other comics forums, MySpace pages and other blogs before hitting the Twitter time line feed. Magnetic Rose does a smack-up job of detailing the genesis of the internet kerfuffle, as well as some side-by-each comparisons here. As a result of the freakout, Radical announced on their MySpace page that they had “halted further production and distribution” of the Incarnate comic book and trade paperback “until the matter is resolved to the satisfaction of all parties“. Simmons meanwhile, after ignoring the noise for several weeks, issued a statement that denied any wrong-doing telling fans “there are certain similarities between some of my work and the work of others. This was simply meant as an homage to artists I respect“, his “inspirations reflect the fact that certain fundamental imagery is common to all Manga” and that “this is the nature of the medium“. Manga and comic book fans seem unswayed, and there’s now a Facebook page, with over 9,000 fans, that’s calling for legal action against Nick Simmons for plagiarism of other works. Even the New York Times Art Beat blog got into the action with a March 1st post that detailed the accusations.

A potential PR nightmare.

Not being a big follower of comic books, I have no idea whether the gripes are legit or not, and other than being a huge Kiss fan when I was a teenager (one of the best band logos too), and watching an occasional episode of A & E’s Simmons’ Family Jewels, I don’t know any of the players involved. Hell, half the posts related to this are in Japanese. What should be obvious is the mammoth headache that this is causing for anyone who’s in the Nick Simmons’ PR department. While the question remains, and despite some pretty damning evidence, did Simmons knock off someone else’s work? Or not? Used to be it took lawyers and lawsuits to settle this stuff. Nowadays, people are convicted in the court of public opinion before they have a chance to hit up their lawyer on speed-dial. And while I bet the Simmons’ empire has some pretty well-heeled lawyers, and despite some of the more outrageous claims disappearing down the memory hole, any damage control team that may be working this beat, have been unable to quell the tempest.

Our own social media experiences

We’ve had our work lifted on numerous occasions and after getting tired of writing ‘cease and desist’ letters (usually to no avail) many moons ago, I took a “complain loud, complain often” stance whenever logos created by our shop are knocked-off (mostly, for submission to logo design contests).boat-logo-twitterI usually don’t bitch on Twitter, but write blog posts about the events and these tend to get re-tweeted around Twitter by followers and friends, then their followers and friends and so on, and so on. Not to the extent of the two previous examples, but certainly enough that action is usually taken by the websites, individuals or companies involved in the ahm, design inspiration. Namely, our stuff (and that of our clients) gets taken down. Sometimes right after I hit ‘publish’ on our blog but more often once the link starts spooling out across Twitter. Accordingly, while I’m a little uneasy about some of the mob mentality, I’ve always found social media a fairly effective way to take care of copyright or trademark infringement.

But what happens when people get things wrong? Luckily, we have an example of that too.

The curious case of Jon Engle.

My first introduction to the power of Twitter as an unbridled social justice tool came in the spring of ’09. Some of you may remember the curious case of Jon Engle, but for those of you who don’t, let’s bullet point. One weekend last April, Jon Engle, a freelance designer, sent out a call for help via his Twitter account, telling us how some stock art company was suing him for $18,000 for allegedly copying artwork from their web-based library. The wrinkle to this story was that Engle claimed the work was his. His angle was that the stock art company had copied his work, and in a Biblical case of brass balls, were now hitting him up for damages for using it. The Twitter outrage from the online design community was swift and ferocious, with one designer after another blasting their version of the original from Twitter accounts around the world.
twitterstorm-timelineHell, I was one of the people at ground zero, retweeting his message via The Logo Factory‘s Twitter page shortly after Engle’s plea first hit light. It spooled out into social media sites, design blogs, and before long, both Stock Art (the site) and Art Laws (their lawyers) were receiving all sorts of e-mail, phone and web vitriol. Death threats even. Legal defense funds were launched. Boycotts, and worse, were threatened. When Engle finally wrote a blog post that supposedly told his side of the story, and despite originally accepting his tale without reservation, I began to have some nagging doubts. Some things in his post didn’t sit right, others sounded downright ludicrous. I messaged a few friends who where tub-thumping the story on their Twitter feeds to hold off “hitching their wagon” to Engle. Something didn’t square so I also decided to do what none of us had done before jumping on the ever-growing Twitter Storm. Ask for the other side of the story.

Twitter rage not always as clear cut as it may seem

Naturally, that was quite different that Engle’s. Not nuanced different as is often the case in copyright dustups. Completely, utterly, 180 degree different. According to Stock Art lawyers, nobody was suing anyone. There was some evidence that Engle had been lifting Stock Art illustrator’s work, entering then into logo design contests (where several had won) and uploading them as examples of his work onto several popular logo design galleries. While half the internet were still calling for Stock Art heads, I wrote a blog post, Stock artwork, logos, copyright and the power of Twitter, outlining some of the investigation I had conducted, as well as some of the graphic evidence I had managed to find. As Engle was now a full-fledged designer cause célèbre, I was hesitant to publish my findings lest the internet anger be aimed my way, but I thought getting the story out was important, so publish it I did. Wasn’t long before that blog post had been tossed into the fracas too, blasted around Twitter, Reddit and Digg (where it managed, for a while, to sit at the number one spot on Digg’s home page, the resultant traffic blowing up our server for the better part of a day). That blog post, a precursor to this one in many ways, suggested that before going off half-cocked on Twitter, perhaps we’ll all be better served doing some cursory investigation before grabbing the pitch forks and torches. Trouble is, just as the internet mob had stormed Stock Art at the beginning, they now turned their animosity 180 degrees, aiming it at the hapless Engle. Don’t blame people for that reaction, many must have felt duped, but any appeals for cooler heads seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Retractions are late in coming. If they come at all.

When it became apparent that Engle’s side of the story wasn’t even close to being accurate, some of the many blogs that had initially documented the incident, either removed the blog posts entirely, or added updates, many of them linking to my Power of Twitter post, correcting their stories. Trouble is, many didn’t and to this day, almost a year later, there are many blogs that tell of Engle’s plight and still hurl all sorts of invective towards Stock Art and their lawyers for beating up on an innocent freelance designer. Even though it’s now clear that neither Stock Art or their lawyers did anything of the sort, and were only protecting their artists’ rights, something we should all applaud. Just like traditional media, the internet loves a controversy and exposing characters for nefarious activities, real or imagined. But as unromantic as they are, when it comes to issuing corrections or retractions, all media is notoriously loathe to do so. Blogs forums and social media platforms are no different. And if they do get around to correcting the record, it’s at a tenth of the volume of the erroneous story they’re retracting.

Social media: Community vigilance or mob justice?

So there you have it. All the above examples of Twitter Storms, Tweakouts and general internet rageathons illustrate the power of social media. Of that, there is no doubt. There are differing outcomes, but all seem to share a common starting point, copied artwork and a great social injustice. Perceived or real. All share the same basic plotline – internet gets pissed off. Internet hurls anger at someone. While the goal of the outrage is often reached, that of removing supposedly infringing artwork, in its wake is sometimes left tarnished reputations, death threats, boycotts, vitriolic insults. Earlier accusations don’t always disappear. With the fleeting nature of social media, some, or all of the support the issue originally enjoyed does. It could be argued that the smash-and-trash campaigns stomp through any libel, defamation or harassment protections we have in the real world. Is that a good thing? Probably not. Regardless of how satisfying it is to demo some perceived nemesis via Twitter, Facebook and whatever other social media site that comes down the pike, I think its something that needs to be approached with a lot more caution than is being exercised currently. At some point or another, somebody’s going to get taken to legal task for launching a flame fest. And here’s some words of advice. If you’re running any type of company or corporate entity, keeping an eye on social media for your “turn in the barrel” should be standard day-to-day activity. You should also be well-rehearsed in dealing with it rapidly, and effectively, if or when it happens.

Now, did you hear about Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines? You might want to retweet that.