On blogging: The great “viral content” swindle

by James Glazebrook

Günther Krabbenhöft street style original photo

You may have seen this dashing fellow on the Internet recently. You might have even seen these photos. If you did, the site you were looking at stole Zoë’s photos, published them without her consent, and used them to generate traffic and, most likely, revenue.  

It all started when So Bad So Good shared some photos to their Facebook page, of the alleged 104-year-old, posing on the platform for the U1 at Kotti. It isn’t clear where they got those images from, as they didn’t include any kind of credit. But we do know that the man pictured, Günther Krabbenhöft – represented by “agents for unique characters”, We Are Unlike You – isn’t 104. More realistic estimates put him at around 70.

Spotting an opportunity, I commented on the post with a link to our own blog post, a streetstyle shot of Günther walking through Graefekiez. Sure enough, that brought us a lot of clicks – about 40% more traffic than in the previous month – but it also brought the attention of websites that pride themselves on finding and sharing viral content. They refer to it as “sharing”, but we call it what it is: stealing.

The biggest, and probably the first, of those was Bored Panda (no, we aren’t going to link to them!). We found them via a trackback, a notification that WordPress sends us whenever someone links to one of our posts. Clicking through, we were shocked to see Zoë’s photos being used in a post that (apparently) now has over 180,000 views, 50,000 Facebook Likes, and is surrounded by ads that make money for the site’s owners. Alarmingly, there’s an “Add post” button that allows anyone to create their own article, with terms of use that place the responsibility for copyright compliance on the “author”.

The offending article on Bored Panda

Bored Panda set the tone for all the other articles we were able to find through trackbacks and Google reverse image search (which we learned about from @eljojo – thanks!) Have a look here – each of those thumbnails leads to at least one article that has used that image in those dimensions. That’s just one of our three images of Günther, and it doesn’t included photos edited beyond recognition by Google’s bots.

Most of the articles we found included the 104, many with that weird get-out that “the Internet” is getting its facts wrong, and all featured images alongside ours from sources who presumably weren’t contacted for permission either. A lot of them completely ripped off the “original” Bored Panda article. But, as it’s not their content anyway, why should they care?

When we contacted Bored Panda, we received an email from the article’s author saying that they’d decided to remove the images. The fact that they responded so quickly, to an email sent via a form that actually has a field for “removal request”, leads us to believe that they subscribe to the school of thought that one should “ask for forgiveness, not permission”.

Günther Krabbenhöft close up

Bored Panda were only closing the barn door after the horse had bolted. By the time our images were taken down from that site, they were all over the “viral” Internet. It takes just one website to turn stolen content into fair game, and other sites are happy to rip off photos, as long as they include the name of the source, and a link to it. Those second-tier sites are legion, and rarely have contact details through which to demand a removal.

A couple of bigger websites approached us for our permission (denied), and, when pushed, a national British newspaper offered an insubstantial amount of money. Given the circumstances, we were almost flattered that people had thought to ask us, but Zoë can’t pay her rent with “credits”, and we can’t build an audience on the clicks of curious people wanting to ogle an apparently ancient “hipster”. Our uptick in traffic came primarily from my comment on So Bad So Good’s Facebook post, and those people won’t be back. If we were playing the same “viral” game as these websites, those clicks would translate into money. But we aren’t – we’re focussed on creating original content.

And that’s the most depressing part of all of this: watching the Internet cannibalise itself. As soon as one online entity had a “hit” with the Günther photos, everyone else had to have them. Major newspapers and best-selling magazines aren’t above this – everyone wants the hot new thing to post, in the hopes that their improved Google rank will inch their audience, and profits, up ever so slightly. This “viral” layer of the web relies on content creators like us to thrive, but we won’t be able to create the content it needs if we can’t make a living. It’s pretty disgusting to see this up close.

So where does that put us? We’ve been advised that we are in a position to demand our content’s removal from all these websites, and to even invoice them for the revenue they likely generated from it. But how do you contact a site that doesn’t feature so much as an email address, and what are your chances of getting a response, let alone compensation? Right now, we’re focused on INTERVIEW.de, who aren’t responsive despite me taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain (sound familiar?) We think they’re taking Andy Warhol’s art of appropriation a little too far…

Let’s be clear: we love it when you share our content. When you tweet one of our photos and @-mention us, you could bring us followers; when you link to our website, we may gain readers. Sharing the photo without a credit isn’t exactly in the spirit of Twitter, but at least you wouldn’t be making money from our creative work. To all our genuine fans, thank you for sharing!

And to all the people out there creating unique content, keep up the good work. Take solace in the fact that this is one of the few cases of plagiarism we’ve (knowingly) experienced, and it can be traced back to us “putting ourselves out there”. Let us know if you ever encounter anything like this, and we’ll be happy to share our learnings and give you some support. Together, we’ll kick some web ass!

Günther's kick-ass shoes

EDIT: INTERVIEW.de have since responded to my Facebook post and taken down the photos. However, I still take exception to them using the photos in the first place. Here’s how that conversation is developing…

On blogging: Why we turned off comments

by James Glazebrook

The more observant of you will have noticed that we’ve turned off comments here on überlin.

Maybe you found you couldn’t enter a competition, because I’d forgotten to turn comments back on in those rare cases where we still allow them. Perhaps you were particularly incensed by the latest thing this expat/hipster/douchebag/gentrifier/all-of-the-above had written. Or you might just have been wanting to tell us how much you love us, but couldn’t. Well, here’s why.

Firstly, and most obviously, internet comments are infamously terrible. Sure, most of our commenters have been very supportive and positive, but a minority have split hairs, gone on inexplicable tangents, ranted, singled us out to blame for the (inevitable) changes happening to Berlin, and one even told us in no uncertain terms: go home.

The main reason for this shittiness is that people aren’t accountable when they’re anonymous. If no one knows who you are, you can be as hateful, reactionary, incoherent and misinformed as you like.

Of course, we ask commenters to provide their names and email addresses, but we have no way of verifying this. Even if we used something like Facebook login to verify people’s identities, the Zuckerberg dodgers could use their invented FB names to shroud themselves in semi-secrecy. Besides, even if we could achieve total transparency and accountability with comments, we’re not sure that we should be insisting that people, especially Germans, share their personal data in this way.

So, given a choice between anonymous comments and no comments, we went with the latter.

Another reason for switching off comments is that we’re no longer focused on producing content that provokes comment. Depending on your perspective, we used to be great at/notorious for hilarious/reductive observations/stereotypes about Germans and Germany, and at times, we’ve been guilty of full-on trolling. These days, however, we’re more interested in showing off Zoë’s beautiful photos of places, people and their dogs, and getting to the heart of what inspires the creatives who call Berlin their home.

This is great content, and we think it’s very shareable, but it doesn’t require your input. If you like something, great – feel free to share it with others on Twitter, Facebook, email or whatever. If you don’t like it, that’s fine too – just look away.

And that brings us to the final reason we turned off comments. We received too many comments like “this comedy piece on going to a German supermarket doesn’t discuss the impact of LIDL’s pricing policies overseas”, which could all be translated as: “I’m annoyed that this article isn’t about something else that I’d rather be reading”. I found myself arguing with these people, then trashing their comments (as they were about an entirely different subject than the article, they weren’t relevant), and then deciding: we don’t need this.

As content producers, we accept the fact that we’re doing all this for free. We run überlin for love, not money, and the fact that our content is kostenlos allows it to reach far more people than it would have in the days before a free, open, democratic(ish) Internet. The problem with this is that people don’t always value what they get for free. And if it isn’t exactly what they wanted to see, they’ll be sure to tell you. I wonder if the editors from Lawnmower Monthly receive letters saying “Dear Sir/Madam, I bought your magazine and was disappointed to find absolutely no photos of monkeys riding motorcycles…”?

The point is: everyone absolutely has the right to their opinion. They just don’t have the right to make people listen to it. We spent five years building this site, filling it with content and growing its readership. If you don’t like something on the site, by all means tell the Twitter followers you earned through your own hard work – hell, tell us. But you don’t get to take the megaphone out of our hands and use it to broadcast your own opinions, while hiding behind the mask of anonymity.

Hence (with a few exceptions): no more comments here on überlin. In the month or so that we’ve been without comments, we haven’t missed them at all. We still get plenty of feedback via social media, and we’re always thankful for that. If you have any comments about this post, or anything else we’re doing, hit us up on Facebook  and Twitter. The (on-site) comments are dead; long live the (off-site) comments!