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Curate Yourself! Starring Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker after it was discovered he’d fabricated a series of “quotes” from Bob Dylan. Thinking you could get away with putting words in the mouth of the most obsessively studied songwriter of the last 100 years might mean Lehrer possessed a Rasputin-like notion of his own indestructibility. Or, it could say less about Lehrer specifically and more about a transformation in ideas of what we expect from media and entertainment.

I wrote about a similar issue earlier this year when I laced into a Verizon commercial that ripped off an SNL ad parody from the early 1990s. What struck me about that Verizon commercial was not only how blatant the concept robbery was, but how long it took me to notice it, which indicated either no one else had noticed it or the world at large was completely unconcerned with the theft.

The Verizon spot didn’t run for very long–suggesting perhaps they got cold feet about such wanton thievery–but it also didn’t garner much outrage outside of media types, ad-centric blogs, and weird trainspotters like myself. Google “Verizon SNL bad idea” and the aforementioned Scratchbomb post is fourth from the top, which is usually a good sign that nobody cares about a subject but me.

When thinking about Verizon’s ripoff and why no one seemed to care, it occurred to me that in our reference-oriented culture, there is no longer a shared concept of what constitutes stealing an idea.

So many folks out there in TV Land may interpret this Verizon ad as more of an homage to Bad Idea Jeans than a ripoff. And for all I know, the ad’s creators may honestly see it that way, too. They don’t think they’ve “gotten away” with something; they think they’re playing by the New Rules. What passes for a new idea in the 21st century is being the first guy to complete bite something we’ve seen before.

While the Jonah Lehrer incident is a bit of a different animal, I think they’re in the same wing of the zoo. Both reflect a shift in attitudes in what both the writer and the reader expect from content.

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