As John Vinson reports on WebProNews: “If you ever need proof that truth is stranger than fiction, simply give this story a read.” He’s referring to a crazy series of events involving a New York-area newspaper and an article I posted to my blog on Tuesday titled, “When a newspaper rips off your blog, then taunts you about it”. (more coverage here, here, and here) There was a pretty vigorous response to the story, to put it mildly! Since everyone has now had 24 hours to calm down, I’m going to present the complete sequence of events, and close with a brief update on the current state of the situation.
This story really starts at 8:59PM on March 23rd, when I noticed this tweet from Mark Cuban:
Got One !!! Finally..http://www.petitelapgiraffe.com/
Since I had never seen any advertising related to this website, I was completely floored. If you have no idea what this is about, take a minute to check it out. Immediately, I had questions: Could these animals really exist? Are they so rare that only billionaires can afford them? How does a Russian farm come up with such a polished website? (that work wasn’t cheap) *What of the live video feed!? *I’ll admit it straight-up: I totally bought into the illusion. It was brilliant! As I tried to learn more, I grew increasingly (and tragically) skeptical, eventually composing a blog entry at 9:56PM debunking the advertisements. Then, at 10:01PM on March 23rd, I posted this update to twitter:
I want a Petite Lap Giraffe! http://www.iandennismiller.com/blog/2011/03/petite-lap-giraffes/ #petitelapgiraffe
It turns out I wasn’t the only person who wanted to know if these animals were real, and thousands of people started visiting my blog to find out the answer. I had approached the viral ads like a puzzle, so it was a lot of fun for me to debunk the myth. A lot of people seemed to be genuinely disappointed that the giraffes weren’t real, so I spent some additional time consoling the desolate and despondent, who were populating my blog’s comments section.
For the next few days, I Googled for “petite lap giraffe” about once per day, and idly clicked through the other coverage of the meme. I had been following a sequence of articles posted by the LongIslandPress.com (since they seemed to be the only newspaper publishing anything about it), but around 2:00PM on Tuesday March 29th, one of their articles particularly caught my eye. It had been published Monday, March 28th at 5:02PM. Remember that time, because it’s going to become really important a little later on.
As with the original Petite Lap Giraffe debunking, I started sensing that something was wrong with this article. I wish I could link to the original article, but alas, it has since been swallowed up by the memory hole. Fortunately, I created a PDF archive, so for posterity’s sake, this screenshot will serve as a mirror of the original LongIslandPress.com article:
There were three sentences that jumped out at me, particularly the one about the stock image. In my article debunking the giraffes, that was the detail that had sealed the deal for me. But had they just claimed they were the ones who performed this research? It sounded that way to me, so at 2:07PM I posted the following comment in response to the article:
I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t city [sic] my March 23 blog post on this topic, since it is the original source of the information you mention in this article. I thought it was standard to provide an attribution?
No big deal. I checked back around 2:40PM, and it appeared as if my comment had been deleted. That kindof irked me, so at 2:44PM, I tried again (this time, a little more forcefully):
I’m disappointed you didn’t city [sic] my March 23 blog post, where I actually conducted the research you are taking credit for. Specifically, I uncovered the link to the Grey Group, and I also discovered the “hot tub” stock image. At a minimum, you should provide attribution:
…but it’s dishonest to claim this research as your own. Usually, it’s considered plagiarism.
Again, it seemed like my comment had been deleted, but I soon realized that it was actually being held for moderation, which is a pretty normal thing in the blog world. Again, no big deal. More waiting. When I checked back at 3:05PM, there was a response! However, this was not the response I was expecting. Someone at LongIslandPress.com had altered the original article, replacing this sentence:
And the cute little guy in the bath tub? Well, that’s a stock image with the cute little guy added in.
with this sentence:
A quick domain name lookup…which is free and public information…will give you those details.
Here is my record of their article, at that time (3:05PM).
By this point, I was pretty sure someone was trying to cover something up, so I told some of my friends about the situation and began summarizing my findings in a new blog article, which I published at 3:39PM. The next step happened when a friend pinged me, pointing out that the article had been updated yet again. By 4:23PM, the article included this sentence:
A quick domain name lookup…which is free and public information…will give you those details, which we acquired–you know, being a newspaper with research capabilities and all–of our own accord (although some are trying to claim this information as their own “discovery” as a way to promote their own personal website! But enough of that…)
Here is a screenshot of the article at 4:23PM:
It seemed like they had clearly received my comment, and although they were refusing to publish it, they were certainly responding to it! Shortly after I was notified of this latest edit, I posted my final comment on their article:
Whatever - I think you did a pretty lame thing here. You deleted the detail about the stock photo and are trying to make it sound like you did the rest on your own. …but I saved a copy of all 3 versions of your article, and it’s pretty clear you know which details you lifted. I’m kindof amazed at how shameless you are about this (really, all I asked for was proper attribution) but I actually don’t have time to pursue this further.
Captcha: You win - lol
This comment seems to have been deleted outright, rather than being held for moderation, but I did have a ton of work to do, and I didn’t want to deal with this right now. But hey: this is what friends are for. They kept asking me questions about the article, and I updated my own article to mention LongIslandPress.com’s inflammatory remark. It seemed to me like LongIslandPress.com had provided a de facto admission of their deeds, so I started asking some forums for advice about how to report a journalistic ethics complaint. At 8:46PM, I submitted the following blurb to slashdot.org:
“I’ve been keeping an eye on this viral marketing campaign called Petite Lap Giraffe — it’s the DirecTV ads with the Russian guy and the tiny giraffe. I was pretty quick to debunk the existence of the giraffes, so a lot of people have been visiting my blog as a result. Today, I noticed a New-York area newspaper that was represented my research as their own, so I asked them to link to my blog (i.e. provide attribution). What ended up happening perfectly illustrates that newspapers just don’t understand how the Internet works…”
The real break occurred at 11:27PM, when the story was featured on the front page of slashdot. This brought on a flood of attention, but it seemed like many people weren’t buying my account of events. I have to admit: I thought these critics had a point. Again, questions crept into my consciousness: What if I got it all wrong? What if LongIslandPress.com really did conduct their own research? Freak Out!!
I spent the next 3 hours responding to criticisms, but at 2:29AM on March 30, Another Slashdotter posted the following comment:
Have you looked through your logs to see if anybody from their domain name/IP address visited your blog right before the article was published?
Obviously! The Internet horde definitely needs to hear about the logs! Earlier in the evening, I had been watching the real-time logs for a project, and I remembered seeing a visitor from the Long Island area. I had actually done a reverse-DNS lookup at that time, and it turned out to have originated at the hostname mail.longislandpress.com, so this detail was lurking in my memory. In other words, I had a pretty good hunch about what IP address to look for in my personal blog’s server access logs.
The logs contained the smoking gun, and these are the two entries originating from mail.longislandpress.com that sealed the deal:
XXX.XXX.XXX.XX – - [28/Mar/2011:20:56:31 +0000] “GET /favicon.ico HTTP/1.0″ 304 – “-” “Mozilla/5.0
(Windows NT 5.1; rv:2.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0″</code>
XXX.XXX.XXX.XX - - [29/Mar/2011:19:40:30 +0000] "GET /blog/2011/03/total-bummer-longislandpress-
com-plagiarism-and-coverup/ HTTP/1.0" 200 13398 "http://www.longislandpress.com/[redacted
wordpress admin.php]" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 5.1; rv:2.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.
In English, my logs contained records indicating LongIslandPress.com had visited my website at 4:56PM, just 6 minutes before they published their article. This is why it was so important that the LongIslandPress.com article was published at 5:02PM on March 28th.
Here is the technical interpretation of the first log entry:
[the favicon.ico] was served with an HTTP 304 code (meaning “unmodified”) which suggests the favicon was already in someone’s cache. That means the page had previously been loaded. The timestamp is 20:56:31 UTC, meaning it was 4:56PM in New York. The timestamp on the original Long Island Press article is 5:02PM.
And here is the interpretation of the second entry:
using the same IP address as the [favicon.ico] log entry
using the same browser as before (or at least providing the same UserAgent)
using the LIP wordpress admin interface (as indicated by the Referer field)
…clicked through to my site, in order to read [the article about LongIslandPress.com]
This satisfied everybody, and finally I could get some rest. The next major event occurred around 9:29AM on March 30, when LongIslandPress.com took their article offline. At 3:45PM, LongIslandPress.com put the original article online again (minus the remarks), which included attribution.
Since then, I’ve been keeping an eye on LongIslandPress.com, and at 10:27AM on March 31, they posted an article detailing a local Long Island connection to the Petite Lap Giraffe thing. So that’s why LongIslandPress.com had written so many articles about the Petite Lap Giraffe! (this really satisfied a nagging question I had been puzzling over for several days).