A Rant about “Emphases and Comments”

At the risk of upsetting a number of good Catholic bloggers (including some friends), I want to talk for a minute about the practice of adding “emphases and comments” to someone else’s work and uploading it as a blog post.

[2010-12-10 Author’s note – I realize I was unclear here. I’m talking about copying most or all of another person’s article or blog post and adding “emphases and comments” — not just quoting a paragraph or two and linking back to the original, which has long been accepted practice.]

In short: I am not a fan of this practice. I think it is boring, lazy, borderline unethical, and cowardly. Maybe it’s just the grumpy old man in me, but I can’t understand why this is such a popular way to blog.

It’s boring because I follow enough blogs that I’ve probably already seen the original article and formed my own opinion. I don’t need five other bloggers’ identical commentaries on it. It’s lazy because it doesn’t call for any great effort or creativity. I find bloggers that publish infrequent but original content much more interesting and useful than those that produce a large quantity of “emphases and comment” material.

It’s only borderline unethical because, while skirting the line of content theft, I suppose an argument can be made that the comments and emphases add enough of an editorial layer to qualify for fair use. But even that can be abused; I’ve seen some cases where the commenting blogger offered no original material and little in the way of “emphasis.”

But the theft involved is more than just content. In same cases it may well be depriving the original author of advertising revenue by stripping away ad content that is part of the original author’s site. This is especially devastating to traditional media organizations that are already reeling from a loss of ad revenue in their print editions. It is also depriving the original author of an audience and comments on the original post. If I write a blog post, I want people to comment on my site so that I can respond and engage in the conversation.

And that’s what really bugs me. These types of posts are just extended comments that avoid any direct confrontation with the original author. It’s a passive-aggressive way to react to another person’s work in a place they are unlikely to find it. It’s circumvents one of the web’s greatest assets: the free exchange of ideas and open communication.

If bloggers were really interested in engaging original authors — and not just scoring easy points with their readers — they would man up and post a comment instead of running back to their own blogs.

Am I being a fuddy-duddy? Is this an ethical issue that Catholic bloggers should be aware of? Or am I stuck in the 20th century?

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Author:Jonathan F. Sullivan

Jonathan F. Sullivan is the director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @sullijo; he also blogs on catechetical topics at www.JonathanFSullivan.com.
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DR4QDJCGJFZGJK2LMOBGXWQZBQ JoyceD

    I do agree that it is annoying to follow blogs that simply re-post other people’s stuff all the time – even when they do it without expressing an “opinion’. When the other things you describe happen it goes beyond plagiarism, to misrepresentation and worse. Thanks for being grumpy enough to bring this up!

  • http://marccardaronella.com Marc Cardaronella

    I thought that part of the deal with blogging and web 2.0 was featuring and linking to other people’s blogs on your own and extending the conversation. The idea being that you have a social network and readers that might be different from the other person and so you expose them to the original thought and your commentary as well, which they’re coming to your site to get. And, they could follow the link to the original content if they wanted and read the whole thing. The point being that perhaps they never would have seen the content in the first place if you hadn’t put it on your blog. Now you’ve exposed your readers to someone else they may want to follow.

    I suppose if what you quote is almost the whole post and you don’t add anything of value, then it doesn’t really do much. Although, I’ve had someone do that with me but that brought a reader to my blog and now he comments a lot on my site too. I think it’s flattering in any way if someone thinks your stuff is good enough to quote on their blog and they give you credit and a link. It’s sort of like a retweet, isn’t it?

    Oh, and…I hope it’s okay that I quoted from your latest post. It was only a sentence and I linked! πŸ˜‰

    • http://www.jonathanfsullivan.com/ Jonathan F. Sullivan

      Posting a short quote and linking to the original is great — that’s exactly what “featuring and linking” is all about. I’m talking about copying and pasting all or most of an article with “emphases and comments.”

      While I admire his blog, Fr. Z does this pretty often. But he’s just the most visible of many.

      • http://marccardaronella.com Marc Cardaronella

        Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification on the practice and on where this happens.

  • Madonna Broeker

    The thing that bothers me about this IS the extra commentary and emphases that people add to other’s works on their own sites. This bothers me because it makes me feel as if I am not intelligent enough to understand what the original author is saying without someone spelling it out even further for me. I try not to read blogs when they are copycat work of someone else. Good post, Jon. You’ve said what I have been thinking for a long time.

  • Adoro

    I largely agree with you, especially considering that the commentary tends to be negative.

    Most bloggers will actually “emphasize” by quoting a section in order to direct readers to the original author.

    However, one could perhaps give a little benefit of the doubt: If they link back to the post they are commenting upon, they are giving attribution. Secondly, the combox doesn’t tend to allow for lengthy discussion – there IS a word limit in ALL the different blogging venues. Therefore the commenters are forced to create a blog post as a response, and this is, in my eyes, legitimate.

    Not all who are responding in this way, in detail (ie “commenting” and “emphasizing”) are doing so out of laziness. Some would likely do the same within the original post if the word limit allowed it.

    (Myself…I don’t have time to do that although I’ve done so in the past for that very reason. And also, in a few early cases, just to be a snarkball. Being snarky obtains commenters and potential followrs – just bein’ honest about that.)

    Like you, I prefer to read original posts, and I do click on those who emphasize a section of someone else’s post and directs them to go there to read the entire thing. Per context here I know you don’t have a problem with them. :-)

    Thanks for this post!

    • http://www.jonathanfsullivan.com/ Jonathan F. Sullivan

      Quoting a section and linking back is fine. I’m talking about copying and pasting whole articles — thus negating the need to go to the original in the first place.

      You make a good point that this style of commentary is almost exclusively used for negative criticism and ridicule, although I have seen exceptions — for instance, Fr. Z will sometimes use this style to comment on the pope’s writings.

  • Anonymous

    As long as they give proper attribution and do not take text ‘out-of-context’ to make a point…I personally don’t find anything wrong with the practice. If that’s the only kind of post they create though, it’s rather dull and I won’t be following it. Also, they need to add something of value if they want my eyeballs on their blog. For example, Fr. Z…I find his commentary edifying.

    RE: stealing traffic. I agree…to an extant. As a blogger, while I may get miffed about someone else stealing my thunder, I sure as heck wouldn’t mind if Matt Drudge did a little paraphrasing of my posts – with proper attribution of course. πŸ˜‰

    Good discussion topic Jonathan!

    • http://www.jonathanfsullivan.com/ Jonathan F. Sullivan

      Paraphrasing is fine. Quoting a paragraph or two and linking — no problem! But copying an entire copyrighted article? I think that’s pushing it too far.

      Just today Fr. Z has copied an entire copyrighted article — from a commentator he professes great respect for — and added just three sentences of his own, none of which actually comment on the substance of the original.

      This drives me nuts, especially coming from a blogger that has shown he can otherwise write original, thoughtful, and thought-provoking pieces! Isn’t this stretching fair use too far? Why not just post a link and leave a comment on the original — which allows the original author to reply? Doesn’t the original source deserve the traffic and comments?

      I really do believe that there is an ethical issue here that, in our “everything is free on the internet” culture, we gloss over. It may not be a big deal — but so far I haven’t heard a good ethical argument for the practice.

      • Anonymous

        What you dont like my drudge effect argument? πŸ˜‰

      • Anonymous

        Ive gotten burned on that before…from a large Catholic website, so i understand the frustration.

        IMO…lifting entire text is a no no without getting approval. In Fr Z’s case, he once asked me for permission to lift the entirety of something.

  • http://www.fallibleblogma.com Matthew Warner

    Copying and pasting an entire article – even when commenting on it – is not considered “fair use” in my opinion. Bloggers need to learn what “fair use” means and stick to it. It’s guidelines are there for a reason: to support the positive aspects of commenting on, making derivatives and referring to other content on the web while still protecting the original author’s rights.

    As a general rule: always link back to where you get something (that fixes most potential problems) and there is rarely a need or justification for copying and pasting more than a paragraph or two (depending on the percentage it is of the original work).

  • http://profiles.google.com/owenswain owen swain

    “I can’t understand why this is such a popular way to blog.” I think the simple answer is because Fr.Z does it and everyone knows Father does best. I’m only half kidding. (luminousmiseries.ca & drawntocatholicism.com is where I hang out) UPDATE: I didn’t read all the comments before committing my faux paxs. I see the Zee has been covered. I’d delete my drivel but I don’t see how.