At Red River College, where I teach public relations and freelance business management, we have strict rules around academic integrity and honesty. We're in the business of training future professionals here, and professional integrity is at the core of success in any field -- especially PR.
Presenting someone else's ideas as your own is plagiarism, and it's not treated lightly in academia. Here at Red River, students caught plagiarizing others' work can be flunked out of a course and/or suspended from their studies altogether.
But what happens in the professional world?
Well, you can flunk out there, too.
As you may remember, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper came under fire a couple of years ago for having delivered a speech that appeared to have been plagiarized from one given by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard two days earlier. His speechwriter quickly admitted to the plagiarism and resigned his position, having publicly embarrassed himself, the Conservative party, and the Prime Minister -- not to mention many Canadians.
While cases this high-profile are few and far between, plagiarism happens all the time. While some may get away with it for a while, many don't -- and when that happens, whether the plagiarists realize it or not, their reputations suffer.
Why am I writing about this now?
Here are two tweets that turned up in my Twitter timeline last week from two different users, in the order in which I received them.
Note the date/time stamps -- the second followed the first by more than a day.
Do you believe it's coincidence that these two Twitter users had the same witty thought and expressed it in exactly the same words? Or do you think maybe the writer of the second ripped off the first, adding the little winky face for originality?
My first instinct is the latter. I may be wrong -- maybe the writer of the second tweet just forgot to add the "RT" and had no intention of presenting someone else's thought as their own. Had that been the case, a quick follow-up tweet saying something like "oops! I forgot to add the RT!" and crediting the original author would've done the trick.
It so happens that the author of the second tweet is an established PR professional in a major American city. I'll admit to having been shocked to see this from him/her; I'll also admit I've stopped following him/her on Twitter as a result. This one little Twitter indiscretion has torpedoed this person's credibility, at least in my mind.
The social media community expects better.
In the communities that have grown in and around social media, like in most communities, there are wackos, there are silent watchers, and there are everyday people from all walks of life who share their thoughts, ideas and observations. While there are dishonest people who take advantage of the opportunity for anonymity to spread vitriol and take advantage of others, social media culture is overall open and honest, and relatively intolerant of bullsh*t.
Just have a look at the content on many blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and you'll see posts calling out politicians, organizations, celebrities and companies on perceived unfairness, dishonesty, and disingenuousness. Numerous major companies know the misfortune of social media users having aired evidence of their poor customer service for the whole world to see. In many ways, social media participants take up the role traditionally played by mainstream media in challenging the powers that be -- in the words of CNN's Anderson Cooper, "keeping them honest."(Interested in the pursuit of social media plagiarists? There are Twitter accounts and blogs devoted solely to exposing them.)
While we read all the time about how basic English grammar is being destroyed by SMS texting, Facebook and Twitter, don't think the same laziness is accepted with respect to personal integrity. (I'll argue all night long about how grammatical laziness isn't acceptable either, but that's another post.)
Because so much of the exchange in social media takes place online, where people can hide behind false identities if they choose, honesty and integrity are just as important for legitimate members of the community here as in the "real world." Without those, the information and exchanges made available through social media are worthless, since no-one knows whom to trust.
So if you come across something on Twitter (or a blog, or Facebook, or MySpace, or anywhere else) you'd like to share, do so: but make sure you credit its author.
Otherwise, like Aesop's boy who cried wolf, you'll soon find no-one believes you about anything.