Almost as if planned, my first post on the new blog stirred up some level of controversy. In the comments section of a Facebook share of the post by my friend Scott Monty, a fellow social media speaker/author type decided to declare my work a fraud, my content stolen and the topic stale.

The person in question has written extensively about return on investment as it relates to social media and, I assume, he was rather offended I didn’t refer back to his book or something. While I did read his book – I’m on the editorial board of his publisher – and I have reviewed a slide deck he once prepared on the topic, I can’t recall ever thinking, “That’s a good nugget. I should use that.” Don’t get me wrong, he’s smart and his writing is as well.

Nevertheless, I’m sure somewhere along the way I’ve taken bits and pieces of wisdom, perspective or quotes from dozens of people, later synthesized those ideas and formulated my own, unique take on the topic.

This does not a plagiarist make.

As for stale? Well, he must not be speaking much anymore because ROI is still the No. 1 question marketers ask in relation to social media. Guess they didn’t read his book. Or Nichole’s. Or Katie’s. Or the five others under the title of social media ROI on Amazon.

Happy to move on from that accusation, days later, I stumbled across this rather exasperated post from my friend Mark Schaefer on Facebook:

After being immersed in this digital world for many years I’ve determined that plagiarism is a legitimate career path. Even some of the top “gurus” have built their brands by stealing shit. Nobody seems to notice or care. Enough evidence has accumulated to declare that this a viable way to succeed. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to know this world is real and how little ethics or critical thinking matter any more.

Here is my theory. Years ago people who were not very capable could still thrive in business through connections and politics. On the web, none of that works. So to survive, they have to steal the content and ideas of others to appear authoritative and smart. The Internet is so vast and the churn is so great that being a fake can work for a long time, even if some people figure it out. This is the new business model.

It is what it is. Carry on.

Seems Mark found some actual plagiarism – someone writing sentences and paragraphs in prose, word-for-word, that he (or someone else) wrote and claiming it as their own, original work. Actual plagiarism like this can be handled legally by suing someone. It’s a shame it happens ever, but it’s particularly shameful that it happens in an industry that is focused on content creation and sharing ideas where – at least by my count – most folks are smart enough to understand copyright, trademark and believe in the courtesy of giving credit where and when appropriate.

But there is a huge difference between plagiarism and offering up a synthesis of ideas, some your own and others from elsewhere.

The Truth About Original Thought

Nearly every marketing proclamation having to do with social media was said, written about or thought of before social media existed. ROI? That conversation has been going on around public relations for decades and advertising long before that. Most of the “ah-ha!” moments in social marketing revelation can probably be found in some iteration in a Philip Kotler or David Ogilvy book somewhere.

Any “guru” or thought leader or speaker or author today has an accumulated knowledge that touches dozens, if not hundreds of sources. They range from Marketing 101 class in college to some speaker they paid attention to for 15-seconds while passing by in the hall at an event one day. We all absorb knowledge from various sources and people and books. Those of us who also publish regurgitate what we know.

And what we know doesn’t always come with footnotes.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not endorsing plagiarism. If someone else does the work, comes up with the idea, thinks of the angle, a tip of the cap and credit is due. And believe me, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins where I failed to tip the cap, plus my share of times seeing my ideas shared by others.

In fact, I gave two presentations recently that – unbeknownst to me – included slides inspired by – even straight copies from — my friend Lee Odden. They were company slides prepared by others that had been copied from previous internal decks and the credit box either didn’t get copied or was black font on black background or some such thing. Lee saw a deck on Slideshare with the offending pages and I had some ‘splaining to do!

Fortunately for everyone involved, Lee and I are friends and he didn’t let his anger push him to lash out at me before figuring out what happened. But he had every right to be angry. (Unfortunately the incident has probably soured Lee’s opinion of me. I hope not, but there’s an inevitable stain there.)

But to hear someone talk about social marketing or content marketing or ROI or any other subject that is making the rounds at conferences these days and think anyone owes you footnotes and verbal fellatio because you said something similar out loud once is just nonsense. Nothing that any of us talk about is truly being talked about in original ways.

My old business partner Nichole Kelly has a very focused and determined view of revenue attribution. My guess is that she learned a lot of it from her days in the financial services industry. I’m sure some of the ideas and catch phrases and principles she promotes can be found written about in accounting books from a decade or so ago. Does that mean she doesn’t deserve credit for bringing that intelligence to an audience? No. Does that mean she should cite and quote every source she learned from along the way? Not at all.

If you knowingly steal someone else’s idea and say it is your own, you are a plagiarizer. You should be ashamed of yourself.

But if you simply synthesize all that you know into a perspective on a topic, you’re simply learning and sharing. And that’s the correct label to put on 99 percent of those of us who publish online.

We are fortunate to live in an era where information is freely available. We can read blogs, view videos, consume PowerPoint decks, listen to podcasts. All of these feed our library of awareness in our brains. As we sit down to produce our own content, we’re pulling from that collective library. It is safe to assume that most of what any of us has to say is not definitively original. If we present something said before in a different way, we stand out.

But when we standout, we shouldn’t call out others trying to do the same thing. If we do, we’re just playing the ego game.

Thoughts? Objections? The comments are yours.

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