Creativity Versus Copyright: Lessons From The Reddit Zombie Apocalypse

From January 1 – 14, a Reddit user named Vidzilla posted daily images of a zombie pandemic as depicted through screen shots of popular internet services. The lessons we can learn from the “Day” series creative gestalt are an excellent example of why technologists, educators, and the general public should fight for positive rights to fair use.

Source: Vidzilla via Reddit

Like many internet memes, each of the images from the “Day” series is a combination of popular and folk culture, a mashup of objects from media industries with new material from the author. Many of the individual parts of the “Day” series’ images are trademarked and/or subject to copyright, and thus despite the long-standing convention of fair use, the alarming upswing of attempts at regulatory control of content (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, TPP) could end up crushing this form of creativity.

Source: Vidzilla via Reddit

These digital objects that made up the “Day” series comprised a 14 day amateur take on the Alternative Reality Game (ARG) genre. ARGs are interactive narratives revealed by clues delivered across multiple media formats. They are often used in viral marketing campaigns.

When the “Day” series began, some Redditors wondered if the posts were viral marketing for the upcoming World War Z film. Vidzilla claimed to have been influenced by prior ARGs, but emphatically denied that the “Day” posts were part of a marketing campaign.

Source: Reddit

Rather, Vidzilla explained, the “Day” series was an opportunistic creation. After positive responses to an initial post to Reddit about text-messaging being the start of a zombie pandemic, Vidzilla spontaneously decided to develop a story by by depicting zombie-themed posts in various social media.

The inclusion of clues to Easter Eggs (hidden extra images, audio, and video) in the images boosted the popularity of the later posts. Reddit users moved from mere upvoting and general discussion of the posts’ contents to swapping the passwords for audio and video files, debating the meaning of the ambiguous sounds and images, and developing their own responses to the story. On January 15 Vidzilla ended the series and thanked the Reddit community.

The social media patchwork and emergency management

The “Day” series began and ended with fictious SMS messages and covered virtually every form of online media in between. Each image was a note-perfect slice of the pandemic from the personal to institutional. For example, these first two images from Day 3 show a tweet from the World Health Organization and a personal Facebook post with two responses.

Source: Vidzilla via Reddit

These images are great story-telling because it avoids exposition. It shows rather than tells. The juxtaposition of images leads readers to relate the bruise to the viral emergency, the particular to the general. The real-world issue, though, is how long it would take people–from emergency management professionals to the general public–to form such a link in the case of a real crisis.

Online crisis management conferences and research papers are already looking into ways of searching for and managing reasonably discrete crisis markers, Twitter hashtags for example. However, as the “Day” series ably demonstrates, the likely picture of an emerging crisis will be an uneven patchwork of very different objects. The “Day” series shows them as an easily connected narrative in hindsight, but harder to connect emergently unless there are ways to predict the very complex set of possible markers.

The field of online crisis management will need deep knowledge of how possible markers of a crisis can be found or predicted in the ways people fit their communication to media formats.

That is not an easy task and it is complicated by the ways in which online culture is decidedly less restrained than offline culture. Consider, for example, the very interesting point about how a particular Chatroulette image was made. The image as uploaded by Vidzilla shows a person with Zombie-like appearance in the top frame and an Asian woman looking shocked in the bottom frame.

Source: Vidzilla via Reddit

One way of monitoring for an emerging crisis might be to use automatic video-recognition software to search for patterns in public video feeds. Unfortunately, crises can take a very large number of forms, too large, perhaps, to teach a computer to recognise. So we need something more visually stable and likely.

One thing that is more stable in a crisis is the way in which people respond to crises, such as looking shocked. People can only looked shocked in a certain number of ways, so ‘looking shocked’ is much easier to find. If real-time video feeds showed many people being shocked at once, this could trigger an alert for a human to look at the feeds or for other information.

However, as one Reddit user pointed out, the particular image of shock in the found footage used to create the Chatroulette Zombie image was likely drawn from a reaction to nudity in the real Chatroulette. The chance for false positives based on just ‘shocked looks’, then, and perhaps the range of other discrete reactions, is unfortunately very high.

I concede that this scenario is somewhat far-fetched. It is, nonetheless, illustrative of the complexity of sorting markers of a crisis out given the extreme nature of a large amount of the communication exchanged daily online. Fiction, in this case, has unwittingly presented an interesting challenge to social media emergency management.

The future of education

As a communication technology educator, to me one of the most interesting aspects of “Day” was just how much Vidzilla and the responding Redditors needed to know about social media to produce and engage with the story.

Vidzilla’s posts succeed because they clearly display generic conventions of form and content of each Internet medium. From a media education standoint, such distinctions are the basis of understanding media choices and how culture is (re)produced online. Indeed, despite the complexity of the scenario discussed above, Vidzilla’s “Day” series did, in fact, demonstrate a range of quite plausible crisis markers from which future models could be extrapolated. Although Vidzilla skipped the intermediate steps of literature reviews and methodology, and had no intention of conducting any analysis of the recognisablity of the markers, the positive response of Redditors indicates that Vidzilla was on the right track.

Vidzilla’s demonstration of applied media understandings goes beyond the crisis markers. Many of the images reproduce famous and current Internet trends and memes. Vidzilla produced applied media research that many media educators would be proud to see from a student.

Source: Vidzilla via Reddit

The “Day” series posts also mimiced typical Reddit posts. Reddit bills itself as “The front page of the Internet” because it is perhaps the most mainstream aggregation of the latest Internet trends and world news. Vidzilla’s knew what Redditors would expect to see posted during an emergent crisis. Finally, Vidzilla’s decision to make some of the story materials available via image hosting and media download sites also demonstrates an understanding of the increasingly broad capabilities of online infrastructure.

These three sets of knowledge are very useful for anyone interested in the many communication and design-oriented research and professional fields that now rely on the Internet: public relations, marketing, advertising, fashion, design, and cool-hunting etc.

On the other side of the coin, the Redditors who followed the “Day” series, responded to the clues, and engaged with the story also demonstrated understandings of the knowledge sets above.

The ARG format of the “Day” series taps into recent posts, from educators through to entrepreneurs, about the need to shake up education by going social and including elements of gamification.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been investigating the increasing popularity of online badges as compared to traditional certifications. Similarly, Vinod Khosla has recently argued that gamification of educational materials should lead to a crucial reversal of educational practice: from the time-fixed and learning-variable education to the time-variable and learning-fixed.

Fight for positive Internet education and positive fair use rights

Vidzilla and the Redditors did all of this because they thought it was fun. They might not be able to articulate what they learned, and that will be the crucial step for educators to pass on to students, but they showed the two most crucial components of learning: motivation and creativity.

Laurence Lessig has long argued that overly restrictive copyright regimes wither creativity, taking us from a Read/Write culture to a Read Only culture. Clay Shirky ended his TED talk on January 18 with a similar point. Unless Internet users stand not only against SOPA/PIPA, but what comes next, he argued, the Internet will end up with promoting a consumption-only culture.

This fight, however, needs to be more than a push to stop restrictive legislation. Internet users the world over should be lobbying for more positive fair use and sharing rights. We’ve succeeded once, let’s go further.

We need a new international convention–Berne 2.0, if you will–that provides at least as many positive rights for the sharing and fair use of any existing creative object. The Creative Commons project is clearly the first step in this process, but it preserves the existing notion of copyright. We need more.

And that brings us, again, to education. Not only do Internet users themselves need to better understand the regulatory framework in which they operate, but, it seems, Internet users need to educate legislators and administrators on the Internet’s technical infrastructure and Internet cultural practices. In the US, the organisation We The Lobby intends to do just that. But this needs to be an international effort.

While there will always be place for protest against restrictions, positive education and positive rights will take us further.

Free event in Brisbane: Protecting an uncensored Internet

I will be participating in a free panel discussion event at the State Library of Queensland on February 1 on this issue. The event is entitled “Protecting an uncensored Internet: the global response to SOPA legislation”. Also on the panel will be QUT academics Associate Professor Axel Bruns (esteemed UQ EMSAH alum) and Dr Nic Suzor.

Event details:

6pm, Wednesday 1st February
State Library of Queensland
Auditorium 1, level 2
Free, bookings via 3840 7768 or The Library Shop