Anatomy of a Facebook lynching

Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, Cooks Source magazine is no more. Who'll be the next victim of the Net's frontier justice?

Cooks Source, a small regional food magazine that found itself at the swirling hot center of a copyright controversy two weeks ago, has served up its last helping of rehash.

It was a controversy that played out almost entirely on the pages of Twitter and Facebook, and it was ultimately these social networks that lead to the magazine’s demise. In short, Cooks Source magazine was done in by the vindictiveness of crowds.

To anyone who followed this saga, this outcome isn’t exactly a surprise. If you haven’t been following this saga, InfoWorld’s Robert X. Cringely has a nice summary of it. But here are the broad strokes.

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It seems Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs was under the misapprehension that anything published on the Web was “public domain” and thus could be reused, ad infinitum, for free. A food blogger whose work was republished by Cooks Source took umbrage, wrote to Griggs asking for an apology and a nominal donation to a leading J-school as compensation. Instead, she got flamed by Griggs, who made the aforementioned claims re public domain. Said food blogger blogged about her tale of woe, quoting at length from Griggs’ emails.

Well-connected friends on Twitter saw her blog post and began spreading the word. It became a Twitter trending topic, which then spread to the magazine’s Facebook page. Many many people (including yours truly) posted snarky comments on the Cooks Source page ironically accusing the company of all manner of atrocities, mostly just for fun. Soon fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages started sprouting up, purporting to be from Cooks Source and trying to out snark each other. Then, at some point (this is still not clear and probably never will be) someone hijacked Cooks Source’s Facebook page and began posting sarcastic responses in the haughty manner of Griggs, further inflaming the masses. Major news outlets like CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR etc smelled the blood in the water and started circling.

Meanwhile, amateur Web sleuths researching Cooks Source articles found some 170 that were copies of things published elsewhere. People sent hate mail and threats to Cooks Source advertisers, who begin bailing on the publication. Publishers whose work has been involuntarily repurposed begin contacting Cooks Source.

In a couple of days, everyone who took part in the public stoning had moved on to whatever Web obsession was gripping them on that particular day, but not Cooks Source or Judith Griggs. She was still trying to figure out exactly how she got into this train wreck and how to sort through the mess. She posted a long rambling quasi-apology on her Web site a few days later, followed by an even longer and less coherent one last week that basically says “I give up.” Now when you attempt to dial up her page you are redirected to Intuit’s Web hosting service.  

Remember, this started as a single post on a not-very-popular blog. It became a Twitter meme, a Facebook fad, a media circus, and ended with the complete collapse of a small business.

Granted, the Cooks Source business model was destined for a short shelf life. It was a bit like opening up a convenience store to sell goods you’ve shoplifted from other convenience stores. As soon as 7-11 gets wind of what you’re up to, you as well pack up your microwave burritos and go home.

And the Web has claimed scalps before – CBS’s Dan Rather is one noteworthy example. But the victims are usually big and used to taking a beating; Goliath taken down by an army of Davids, or maybe Gulliver being lashed to the earth by Lilliputians. This was more like one Lilliputian being gang tackled by several thousand others. 

You could argue that Griggs deserved it for stealing other people’s content, and maybe you’d be right. But here’s the part that makes me a little queasy. Griggs wasn’t taken down for stealing other people’s content; she was taken down for being snotty in her response and generally clueless about the Internet. She was ostracized for being the kid with cooties. 

Had Griggs simply apologized, said she was misinformed about the nature of Web content and her rights to reuse material published elsewhere, that would have been it. No Twitter meme, no Facebook farce, no media circus. She probably could have gone on blithely republishing material she did not have the rights to, and no one would have noticed – at least for a while.

Instead, she became fresh meat for the masses on a day when not much else was happening on the InterWebs. I suspect she won’t be the last. And one of these days, very soon, someone less deserving of the crowd’s collective wrath will get targeted, and it’s going to be very ugly.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan has never reprinted a recipe belonging to someone else. So at least he’s got that going for him. Visit his snarky humor site eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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