5 Social Media Lessons to Be Learned from The Oatmeal vs. FunnyJunk Debacle

5 Social Media Lessons to Be Learned from The Oatmeal vs. FunnyJunk DebacleHow can a defamation lawsuit turn into over $180,000 in donations to the National Wildlife Foundation and the American Cancer Society? And what does this have to do with social media?

Let’s start from the beginning. If you haven’t heard of the popular web comic The Oatmeal, several of us here at FulcrumTech highly recommend that you check it out (after you finish reading this article, of course). The creator, Matthew Inman, presents a sarcastic and profane look at everything from Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison to hilarious grammar gaffes.

FunnyJunk is a social image aggregating website. Users can upload images and vote on what they like best. It’s sort of like a content popularity contest on a site that looks as if it was developed back in the MySpace days.

About a year ago, Matthew Inman wrote (and presented in his unique voice) in his blog about how he contacted FunnyJunk to ask them to remove his comics posted to their site without proper attribution or backlink to TheOatmeal.com. He went on to assert that they also stole a great deal of his content and capitalized on his creative work without permission. In the post, he enumerates what he sees as their business practices:

  1. Gather funny pictures from around the internet
  2. Host them on FunnyJunk.com
  3. Slather them in advertising
  4. If someone claims copyright infringement, throw their hands up in the air and exclaim, “It was our users who uploaded your photos! We had nothing to do with it! We’re innocent!”
  5. Cash six-figure advertising checks from other artists’ stolen material

He did not, as he was considering, retain counsel and file a cease-and-desist order. He simply sent his message out into cyberspace and awaited a response.

You might have expected that FunnyJunk would simply remove all content that rightfully belonged to Matthew, but you would have been wrong. What did they do instead?

First, they sent a message claiming that The Oatmeal wanted to sue FunnyJunk and shut it down. Then, they deleted only the posts that had “The Oatmeal” in their titles, which meant that all of the comics that had no reference to Matthew Inman or The Oatmeal were still live on their site. Now, they have retained counsel and are demanding $20,000 in damages for defamation and are insisting that Inman remove his statements about how he views their business practices from his website. They further suggest that they are prepared to file suit if he does not comply.

Matthew Inman is a comic, not a fighter, so what did he do? He posted the letter on his blog and composed his characteristically biting response. But then he took it one incredible step further and decided to show FunnyJunk how supportive his fans could be by seeing if they would help him raise $20,000 in donations, which he planned to donate half to the National Wildlife Federation and half to the American Cancer Society.

He raised $20,000 in an hour! As of this writing, he has now raised an astounding $180,000 with 12 days left to go in his campaign. No, that’s not a typo. He really has raised over $180,000 for his favorite causes. He set out with this hope:

“I’m hoping that philanthropy trumps douchebaggery and greed.”

No doubt, philanthropy does, in fact, make itself heard. It remains to be seen what will happen with this case, but we will keep an eye on it.

What does this all have to do with social media?

There are some classic but subtle lessons that can be learned from this unfolding story, and we couldn’t help but share them with you!

  1. Content is king; community is queen
    You can’t be in the digital marketing world without hearing how important developing excellent content is. Of course we completely agree that having content worth reading is an absolute prerequisite to building a meaningful social presence. But don’t focus on content at the expense of community. We’re recommending a gentle balance here between publishing content you think will be compelling and building your community base so that you can develop content that you know will be compelling. That makes them want to come back, share, and get involved with your brand. What is the takeaway here? Get to know your fans, and they will reward you by standing behind you when you need it.
  2. Philanthropy and comedy work better than a soapbox
    Back to content for a moment. When you develop your voice and content for your site, you want to have a personality. People want to interact with people, not bots, so connecting with your audience requires you to take a leap of faith and develop a position, a voice, or a platform that guides your content creation. In our experience, the two kinds of angles that fans (especially on Facebook) respond to best are philanthropy and comedy. People will share content related to these two areas more readily than they will share other types of content. The more visual, the better, as Facebook Fans tend to click on posts with images more than those without. To get just a bit more into the weeds, Facebook also assigns posts like these a higher EdgeRank than those without images. The lesson here is to develop content that the people you want to reach will find funny, heartwarming, or in some way engaging. If you aren’t an artist like Matthew Inman, try using photographs (but be sure to get permission and give proper attribution—see #4 below).
  3. Have a crisis-management plan
    Matthew Inman probably didn’t have a written plan for what to do in the case of a social media crisis, but then, most of us aren’t as quick off the mark as he is when it comes to responding to incidents like this. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a social media crisis plan. You may never need it, but think of it like a fire extinguisher—even if you don’t end up using it, you know that you have a first line of defense in case there’s a fire. Your crisis-management plan should be both a training guide and an emergency manual to help you and your team navigate through a social media crisis quickly and efficiently. Don’t know where to start? We can help.
  4. Thou shalt not steal
    There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the social media world of late about copyright infringement. Actually, there has always been buzz about this, but the recent popularity of image-posting site Pinterest has brought the issue back to the forefront. Quite legitimately, content creators—whether they are writers, photographers, illustrators, or any other type of creators—have the right to own and profit from their work and not have others do so without their permission. Seems obvious, right? But what happens in social media is that we share content, usually with the intention of simply sharing what is interesting, funny, or thought provoking. Many people unwittingly violate copyright when they share information, but in social media, the jury is still out on exactly where the line is. That’s what makes this case so interesting—it could have lasting implications for the issue as a whole if it makes it to a courtroom. But the lesson here is an easy one to extract: If you are posting someone else’s materials, make sure you understand if you have permission and if so, that you give proper attribution (ideally a backlink to their original post). Matthew’s work is Matthew’s work, and he deserves proper credit for it. It’s as simple as that.
  5. Bullies never win
    Many of us at FulcrumTech are parents, and as such, we feel strongly that bullying should never be tolerated. Most children seem to understand this today, but adults seem to have forgotten. Nobody likes a bully. Should FunnyJunk have threatened to file suit? It’s a matter of opinion, but at least $180,000 says The Oatmeal’s fans will win in the end.

Want help with your social media program or crisis-management plan? Contact us or give us a call at 215-489-9336. We love helping companies grow!

3 Comments

  1. Reply Marilyn
    Posted

    I love this story. It is right up there with my two other favorites, the Bloggess’ email exchange with a PR firm: http://bit.ly/LGrlRG and the Lactivist going toe to toe with big pork: http://bit.ly/KY4p28. Definitely lessons to be found here.

  2. Reply Devon
    Posted

    Thanks! This is a great article and a quick read. I appreciate that you appreciate my time! The insights and takeaways for professionals in the social media field are valuable and I love a concise summary. I have been watching this web drama unfold as well and wonder if it will land in court. Will you please keep us updated on the latest? In addition, I love that The Oatmeal decided to use a crowdsourcing site to help their cause and make their point. Perhaps you can focus on the crowdsourcing phenomenon (how and why it works) in an upcoming blog post.

  3. Reply Jason McMunn
    Posted

    Love that line: Content is king; community is queen.

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