How NOT to Be a Thought Leader

When I pointed out the idiocy of plagiarizing Chris Brogan, I never thought I’d have to turn it into a series.  But then I saw B. L. Ochman’s tweet about her post for Ad Age being blatantly appropriated by Bruce Turkel, and I realized that lifting other people’s blog content and passing it off as your own is quickly becoming the new hotness in this desperate world of online reputation-building.

A Quick Summary:

On October 31, Ochman wrote an article called “10 Things Social Media Can’t Do” and posted it to her blog.  It was reposted as a fully-credited article on Ad Age on November 2.

The following day, Bruce Turkel reposted Ochman’s article (with amendments) on his own blog, in a manner that caused casual visitors (and commenters) to presume that Turkel himself was the original author of the article.

Ochman noticed this appropriation and tweeted about it, but she also did more than simply whinging about her content having been “borrowed;” she left a comment on Turkel’s blog explaining that he did not have her permission to reprint her article, and requested that he take it down.

To Turkel’s credit, he did so, even apologizing and acknowledging the removal on Twitter.  (This also explains why the only way you can read Turkel’s version of Ochman’s post is through the Google cache, since the post itself has been removed.)

But although this particular situation seems to have been rectified, there are still two troubling points worth noting:

#1: Rewriting Someone’s Blog Post Doesn’t Make It Yours

If you’re handy with tabbed browsing, I encourage you to open Ochman’s and Turkel’s versions of the articles side by side and compare them.  Notice that Turkel has rewritten Ochman’s article, rephrasing her words on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis but otherwise leaving her original structure intact.

Note also that Turkel cites Ochman as the author of the post on his site, but he fails to link to her version of the article itself.  Instead, he prefers to link to her site’s homepage and to the Ad Age homepage, but not to the pages of either site that actually contain her original version of the article.

Why?

If Turkel saw nothing wrong with reposting Ochman’s article as his own, he would have done so without amendment. Instead, he cites her as the author, then rewrites a portion of nearly every sentence.  If you believe reposting is fine, why bother rephrasing?  Unless Turkel intended to claim that by doing so, it allowed him to ultimately claim the “new” work as his own.  (Hey, it works in Hollywood.)

#2 This Is Turkel’s Standard Approach

On October 13, Hadji Williams wrote a post for Ad Age that tackled the thorny issue of minority-driven creative shops fighting to be taken seriously by the general market.

That same day, Turkel reposted Williams’s entire article, again crediting Williams as the original author but failing to provide a link to the original post.  At least in this case Turkel opted to leave Williams’s original article intact, rather than “improving” it the way he tinkered with Ochman’s.

But the borrowing doesn’t stop there.

Scroll down the front page of Turkel’s blog and you’ll see that of his seven most recent posts dating back to September 3, six of them are reposts of other people’s material — sometimes with links to the original article, but usually not.

Why It Matters

Despite my recurring debates about intellectual property and content scraping, the fact remains that you cannot legally pass off someone else’s work as your own.  Call it plagiarism, identity theft or impersonation, but it’s still a crime.

Crediting the original author of a work, but then presenting it in such a manner that a person would reasonably draw the conclusion that the work is actually yours?  Now you’re tapdancing into the territory of copyright lawsuits.*

But even if you couldn’t care less about the legality of all this, consider the implications of perception.  The Williams repost appears on a site called “Turkel Talks,” directly beneath a header promising “expert commentary on managing and building brand value.”

BruceTurkel

That the site is called “Turkel Talks” implies that Turkel is the one doing the talking, and that the “expert commentary” is his.  Even by going (slightly) out of his way to credit Ochman or Williams (without linking to them), Turkel would still have to expect casual visitors to jump through deductive hoops in order to consciously understand that his content and his commentary are not always his own.  All of which means Turkel’s reputation benefits from the potential misunderstanding of his readers.

Then there’s the misleading “Ad Age Power 150″ badge in the righthand column.  Again, casual visitors who see it may be impressed because it implies that Turkel Talks is one of the top 150 blogs ranked by Ad Age.

But that isn’t the case.

In fact, Turkel Talks is currently ranked #744 by Ad Age as I type this.  But because they make an “Ad Age Power 150″ badge available for any blog they track, Ad Age’s inattention to detail (or transparency) enables blogs that are far lower on the relevancy food chain to make themselves look like heavy hitters.

These actions combine to make it seem like Turkel is either purposely presenting himself to readers in a manner that may not be entirely accurate, or that he’s unaware of the actual impression these actions may have on a visitor.  Either way, they don’t seem like ideal examples of someone who prides himself as an expert in “building brand value.”

In fact, to better undertand Turkel’s motives (and to see just how well Turkel himself understands social media), look no further than the conclusion of his only original blog post in the past month — a rambling hodge-podge of generic advice titled The Mrs. Kravitz Effect in Social Media.  It reads, in part (and emphasis mine):

Social media also lets us become information providers… we can take information that we find interesting, and that we think others will find interesting, and we can retweet or redistribute it. If you have a blog and you find an article someone else has written that you think the readers of your blog would enjoy, it’s quite simple to paste the link into your blog post – giving attribution to the author, of course – and say hey, I think you guys would find this interesting. The problem is there’s so much information out there that it becomes impossible to read it all. So you can now take on the role of editor. You can become a thought leader and people will look to you to provide information that your customers want, and that will make a difference in their lives.

I would have thought this would be self-evident, but reposting other people’s content doesn’t make you a thought leader.  If this is the kind of advice people are getting during motivational speeches from a 25 year marketing veteran, I’m a bit more concerned about people’s understanding of social media — and their intentions toward it — than I was yesterday.

(For the record, if you simply can’t stop yourself from reposting other people’s content in its entirety, this is the way to do it.  It may not save you from getting sued by the unreasonably litigious, but at least you’re giving credit where credit is due: to the original author, at the original source.)

  • http://whatsnextblog.com B.L. Ochman

    Thank you so much for this post Justin – much appreciated.

    Besides stealing my post, Turkel tweeted several times “MY latest blog post 10 Things Social Media Can’t Do” (Caps are mine, for emphasis)

    And it was abundantly clear that the casual reader thought the post was his because the very first comment commended him for HIS astute post (caps mine for emphasis)

    It’s not the first time that some dickweek outright stole my content and put HIS name on it, and it won’t be the last.

    But if we keep calling people out who do it, and they keep taking the content down when they get caught, hopefully that’ll at least make them think about it before they steal content again.

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  • http://worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/ Josh Hanagarne

    Hey Justin, I just got referred here by Chris Brogan. You’re doing something very cool and useful. I’m a librarian and professional researcher and almost-language-snob. The debates in my field that are raging behind the scenes about intellectual property and citations would turn most people’s hair white. You’d never guess that librarianship had a seedy, flexing underbelly, would you? But the quality of research, the borrowing, the rewriting–it doesn’t stop even at the academic level. For all the great things about the web, this is a pretty insidious problem that I don’t even really know how to come out yet, given the ease of publishing, borrowing, and “creating” content.

    Josh Hanagarne, future author of How NOT to be a Thought Leader:)

    You’ve got a subscriber. Take care, friend.

  • http://worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/ Josh Hanagarne

    whoops! that should have been “come at” not “come out.”

  • http://wingsofwax.ca Ian M Rountree

    Perhaps Turkel should switch to a Tumblr and move away from blogging? I expect he doesn’t really know the difference. “Right idea, wrong tool” makes looking like an ass very easy these days. Who is this Turkel guy, anyway? Just looking for attention?

    Anyone with a blog recently likely knows about Trackback spam. It’s tacky; excerpts pulled from posts with links almost impossible to find… But this is a whole new level of me-too flagellation.

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  • http://correlationist.wordpress.com Prince

    I have a feeling that folks like Turkel, will be naturally weeded out. The problem is that they wont go away, and in most cases, will be rewarded by an unwitting client at least once (and only once, hopefully).

    Thanks Justin, for performing a vital service.

    I have collated opinions of other people, and blogged about it. I am sure I pass the “plagiarism” test with my thoughts on the 3 Mega Trends in CPG for 2K10. What do you think? http://correlationist.wordpress.com/

    Keep sharing.

    Cheers,

  • http://www.theuniuni.com/ Payton_vege

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!