Peter Steiner, New York 1993

"On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" Peter Steiner, The New Yorker July 1993

There’s a ‘phoniness’ that plagues the internet. (Peter Steiner’s famous 1993 cartoon “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog” has become axiomatic).

Wikipedia suffers a scandal when it’s exposed that some phoney posing as a ‘learned academic’ has been pasting content into the wiki — which, I guess, compared to the fake surgeons that pop up now and then in our health system, ain’t no big deal.

This inauthenticity applies in spades to social media (ghost-written celebrity tweets etc) in particular.

Plagiarism or unattributed use of others’ written or other material has always been rife. As university professor/novelist Witi Ihimaera has recently found, the age of Google book-scan has made it child’s play to find phraseology and passages that have been consciously or unconsciously lifted from another person’s writing.

While I’m no saint, I do try to/aim to acknowledge the source of material I use from others. ‘Always acknowledge the source of power’ was a thought drummed into me at some business/personal development courses I attended years ago. It was a lesson in ethics and integrity. If someone else has expressed ‘it’ so well that I want to pass that ‘map’ on to my readers, my view is that it does me no harm whatsoever to cite the source. It is lazy not to.

Part of this might be my journalism training, which leans so heavily on attributed sources. (I’ve actually come to see that’s one of the downsides of the profession — it encourages a sense of being a ‘neutral’ observer and uninvolved note-taker and not a committed change-agent or actor … a sense which can need shaking off. But that’s a topic for another time.)

But there’s another angle to this idea of the unattributed use of others’ words which intrigues me because I haven’t thought about it this way before — and that’s the use of ghostwriters to build ‘credibility’ or, in the age of twitter and blogs, to build up a ‘personal’ following.

As we noted at the time, there have been reports that many of the tweets written by celebrities aren’t actually, ahem, written by the celebrities. Er, OK. That’s fine — they’re often described as plastic people and living a plastic life for their ‘public’ which doesn’t relate to their private life. We also talked earlier about Madonna/Stephen Fry ‘trading’ their privacy as part of their deal with what some call  the bitch-godess Fame.

I guess someone who is famous for their authentic talent had a certain right to use speechwriters to deal with the tedium of feeding the consequent clamouring hunger of their fans for ‘a piece of me.’
But what about using inauthenticity like that on the way UP the ‘fame pole’?
And what about people in business using ghostwriters and copywriters to ‘build trust’ like this:

Some friends of mine are running a new social media (blog/twitter/linkedin…) marketing service for ‘business folk’. Good luck to them, I say. Checking it out, I read these two statements (made without irony) on the same page.

Businesses also need to gain trust with buyers and continue to deliver value. You can achieve both here by publishing news worthy articles focusing on your skills, products, services and knowledge. Your press releases can also be published on [snip] increasing the awareness of your brand and message.

My comment: the key word here is ‘trust‘.
Leave aside how tame “news worthy articles focusing on your skills, products, services and knowledge” might get after awhile, isn’t this just PR flackery? Posing as a ‘blog’?

followed by:

let-our-copywriters write your blog



If you don’t have the time or skill to write your own articles or press releases you can engage our copywriters to write the content for you!

Oooh, er.

So the model is: a copywriter will write the content of your ‘blog’ (in amongst the press releases) and you will publish it in your name?  Tell me again how that builds trust?

Just a thought.

Of course there are plenty of marketplaces for ‘content’ that an aspiring blogger or tweeter can go to to ‘fill’ their communications channels. I see tweets of wise words, ‘quotes’ and ‘tips’ flying around which seem to be automatically fed out at pre-determined intervals like chicken pellets.

Thus these phoneys are using their API to imitate a ‘friend’ passing on a nugget of wisdom, or something cool that they’ve stumbled across. These automated actions take the thought out of this communication — and, remember, with so much in friendship,  “It’s the thought that counts”.

They’re shallow, venal fakes building up an equally fake following.

Then there’s the issue of exposure — like this … (what does this do for trust?):



Not a good look.

Here’s quiet word to someone thinking of using a ‘Copywriter’ to save you finding the time or skill to write your ‘trust-building’ blog: Consider whether it may ever at some point, um, emerge that your ‘blog’ has been ghostwritten?

And then, when that happens, what will that exposure do for the ‘trust’?
What will that  feel like?


An important point of clarification: In my opinion, a ghostwriter or copywriter is not the same as an editor, someone who helps a writer (professionally or not) express their own words and ideas in a better fashion. Big distinction.

– P

PS: I’ve had the spooky experience of being plagiarised a few times, one exceptionally bold, belligerent and comprehensive case leading me and my fellow authors to sue for copyright infringement in the High Court. (Details here if you care.) Even in that case, I can honestly say, proper source attribution initially, and, failing that, an apology like Witi’s on discovery and an offer to rectify the situation would have gone a long way to settling that dispute quickly.