Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Weakest Link

Note: Occasionally worlds collide. I am posting this on two different blogs because the topic of blogging in general and the furor occasioned by activity in the food blogging world recently has this applying equally to both./TD

Do you remember that show on TV? The one where at some point somebody was ushered off to the scolding tones of the host "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!".

In the online world, there seemed to be no such thing as a weak link. In most blogger's minds, a link, representing as it does the potential to reach a new group of people who will view and share content and comments, is generally considered a boon.

I read blogs and log into websites representing large communities featuring articles, threads and posts routinely garnering dozens to hundreds of comments. As somebody who regularly checked (and rechecked) my posts for comments of any sort in vain, I was envious of the attention.

On some level I craved that exposure, that audience, those accolades. I wished for nothing more than to log in, check my blogs, and see a respectable double digit down there in the "comments" section. That, I thought, would be it, baby. The real sign that I had arrived.

Over the course of the past two weeks, two things have happened to shift my thinking.

Coming a bit late into the blogging game, I'd been doing some checking around to determine the proper etiquette for taking somebody's recipe, tweaking it, and then writing a post about it.

Recipes evolve. It is their very nature to do so. Each recipe represents an attempt to take available ingredients and transform them into a dish that will provide nutrition in a way that is pleasing to the palates of the intended audience. When availability of ingredients shifts, or when an intended eater's requirements vary, a recipe must be adjusted accordingly in order to survive as more than a historical or social anachronism.

As best I could see, common practice for food bloggers was to credit all recipe sources specifically, link to them if possible, and reprint the original recipe only if it represented what you were writing about preparing. As I understand it, if I am taking somebody else's recipe and changing it around for whatever reasons, I link to the original, credit the source, then reprint the recipe as I actually prepared it, noting any changes in amounts, substituted ingredients, or alterations in time required or technique.

As part of my research I stumbled across an online drama unfolding over the past couple of weeks that illustrated the perils of my assumptions. An individual food blogger posted a recipe containing modifications, credited and linked to the original recipe although doing so without directly granted permission. This original recipe came from a commercial source. The blogger was reportedly contacted by a publicist from the source of the original recipe who asked her to remove both the link and the modified recipe from her blog. The blogger questioned the need for such a move and a lively email exchange ensued which the blogger then posted.

This exchange between the commercial enterprise and the individual has been picked up by other bloggers who linked to her post and to each other (not unlike what I have done), and a perfect storm of comments grew, as folks debated copyright issues, intellectual property, propriety on the net, fair use, corporate blindness, and various other fascinating issues generated.

I am not here to enter the debate. Consensus seems to be that a recipe cannot be copyrighted or patented. Actual recipes, lists of ingredients with the basic instructions on steps to prepare or combine, are not considered exclusive domain. A particular way of describing how to prepare a dish, including a style of commentary or a very instructive or radical departure in form or order in steps, or in adding ingredients, should be considered exclusive and thereby is (theoretically) protected. Along similar lines, a particular technique or process can be patented.

I think the discussion threads themselves are mostly healthy examinations of how to properly use such a public form of discourse and how to properly credit sources.The rest of the hooraw seems to center around whether or not this blogger crossed a line in reprinting her email exchange with the company representative, balanced by considerations of whether or not she was treated fairly by the commercial enterprise. The question is raised, is it a good idea for a commercial enterprise to respond in such Big Brother fashion at the risk of alienating scores of the their targeted market?

In this case there is a lot of attention that has been generated for both the blogger and the commercial kitchen. There are, not surprisingly, nearly as many opinions on the various questions raised as there are folks commenting on the situation. In the fuss however, the recipe itself, a basic potato salad, has gotten completely lost in the shuffle. So when does a lot of attention become too much? At some point does a comment thread overshadow and render irrelevant the post it relates to?

The other item that has me rethinking the desirability of attention and comments is this article from the NY Times Magazine.

Sidebar: Although themselves a commercial enterprise, the New York Times displays permalinks for their articles with this explicitly printed understanding, "To link to this article from your blog, copy and paste the url below into your blog or homepage. Using this link will ensure access to the article, even after it becomes part of the NYT archive." Granted, they generate income from advertisers apart from subscribers, but their granting permalinks for articles represents a shift for them, coming after a trial of both reserved content for subscribers held aside from freely accessed online material, and altering a previous policy of charging for article access from archives past a certain time span.

I admit to residual naiv├ęte about the internet and all the consequences of having personal content distributed and existing independently for all eternity, searchable, and available to anybody with an internet connection. I' will also admit to previously expressing amusement over how some recent college graduates were chagrined to find their employment prospects dimmed by the unfiltered material they had posted on their social networking sites.

I read with significantly less amusement the August 3, 2008 article in the NY Times Magazine by Mattathias Schwartz that takes a closer look at the world of online trolls. Another feature in the Times asking for comments on the article took on a life of its own as well, eventually veering from responses to the topic of the article itself to commenting on the comments, and finally speculating whether or not the article's author had himself been "trolled". In a bit of holding up the mirror to admire its impact, the Times also runs a feature listing blogs posting to their articles.(image credit:Country Shrink.Com)

So far the "Malwebolance:The Trolls Among Us" article itself has reflected a lot of attention back to the Times. If it is attention they wanted with this article, so far so good although there are a host of seasoned voices questioning the wisdom of shining any additional attention on the trolling community who seem to crave precisely that - at any cost.

With internet access so common, with online threads such a regular feature of our daily lives, they are most certainly subject to the same caveats as with any other endeavor. You are looking for attention? Be very careful what you wish for.

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.


Addie said...

I'd be honored to be the first to comment on this post!

It's such an interesting debate, one that I wasn't aware of but that has a pretty profound impact on my day-to-day work. I was just talking today with my internet editor about what our rules were for printing a recipe from the Internet.

I tend to agree with the majority of the commenters in this Web-wide debate: The universal task of making food cannot be so strictly controlled. It is feasible that you and I could create the same recipe!

What I would like to see is a more clear, universal system of Creative Commons to let others know what they can use and how.

And then again, I kindof agree with Bono, who says that subconsciously plagiarism is inevitable. We don't mean to take, steal, borrow or intimate others' work; it just happens naturally.

TexasDeb said...

Addie, the honor is all mine. Thanks for your insight.

Having a clear etiquette or protocol for posting materials that others have previously posted, intact or with modifications, would be helpful.

A lot of the heat in this discussion has been generated by disagreement over whether or not a recipe can be "perfected" to the point it needs no further alterations - ever, which seems to be the assertion of the commercial folks who do not wish their recipes to be printed with any changes whatsoever- even if full credit is given them for the inspiration.

A "perfect" recipe that needs no changes ever?

Good luck with that, right?

Thanks for your comment.