Shakespeare Was an Aggregating Social-Media Pirate

Portrait of Shakespeare

Aargh?

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, theater critic Charles McNulty wrote a marvelous column inspired by his objections to the Roland Emmerich movie, Anonymous. Though he disputes the movie’s thesis that no one with Shakespeare’s lower middle class roots could have written such great masterpieces, that wasn’t his aim in writing. His goal, rather, was to remind us that the Bard’s works were not simply the output of an individual, but the result of a collaboration with a crowd of other writers, actors, scholars, and editors.

Nothing McNulty tells us would surprise even a casual student of Shakespeare. But without perhaps meaning to, he offers some enlightening arguments against those who doubt the validity or value of social media.

While Shakespeare “is indisputably the master architect of his work—the genius in chief, if you will,” McNulty writes, “his plays took a literary village.” His plays, that is, were the result of collaboration and conversation with predecessors, contemporaries, and even later generations. His plots and characters were frequently borrowed, his words undoubtedly shaped by interactions with his actors, and the final form of his output determined by later scholars and editors.

He was a master aggregator, one who would certainly be accused of plagiarism if he was a 21st-century artist. But the accusation would be false. As McNulty writes, what “we would call plagiarism today was considered borrowing back then, a practice cradled in the curriculum.” Shakespeare didn’t simply borrow, though: “Whatever he touched, he alchemized. His poetic and dramatic instincts could spin gold out of dross.” A useful reminder, perhaps, that the best aggregators improve the things they borrow.

Not only would our age treat a contemporary version of Shakespeare as a plagiarist, it would also spurn him as a copyright pirate. The Renaissance, McNulty notes, was “an age unconstrained by modern copyright laws.” As Mike Masnick asked earlier this year, would Shakespeare today “be able to produce any of his classic works, since they’d all be tied up in lawsuits over copyright infringement”?

No, I’m not defending plagiarism, or opposing copyright. But I am saying that an excessive focus on those issues is bad for our culture. Accordingly, I will borrow as my own McNulty’s eloquent conclusion: “Shakespeare’s legacy is pretty much assured. That of our own age is still up for grabs.”

Want to Twitter Better? Diversify Your Pronouns

One of my favorite Joe Pulizzi sayings is “it’s not about you.” For the most part, he’s talking to marketers, trying to get them to focus on the information their customers need rather than what the marketers most want to talk about: themselves. Journalists generally don’t see this as their own problem. After all, their role is to point towards other people. But as a new study suggests, the story is different on Twitter.  There, they mostly point to themselves. It’s a pronoun problem: too much “I” and not enough “you” and “they.”

Pew study found few mainstream media outlets retweet Back in August, I did an informal study of one B2B publisher’s editorial use of Twitter, and found that most tweets tended to be promotional (linking to in-house sources) rather than curatorial (linking elsewhere) or conversational (engaging with users). Now a Pew Research Center study of 13 mainstream media outlets finds an even more dramatic excess of promotion. The organizations studied included The New York Times, NPR, ABC News, The Huffington Post, and Fox News. More than 90% of their tweets with links were to their own sources.  While only 7% of their tweets linked to outside sources, even fewer were conversational in nature: just 2% asked readers for input, and only 1% were retweets.

The causes and implications of these findings have been well covered by Megan Garber, Mathew Ingram, and Ethan Klapper, among others (if I missed other good ones, why not note them in the comments below?).

I’ll just add this suggestion: when you tweet, try to balance your pronouns. Make sure you match your I—links to your own stories—with equal measures of they—what others, including your competitors, have said—and you—reacting to and soliciting information from your readers and followers.