Who invented the fake Ayn Rand film review?

Twitter, plagiarism, and multiple discovery

Andy Baio
Andy Baio
Dec 23, 2014 · 4 min read

Last Thursday, The New Yorker published Ayn Rand Reviews Children’s Movies, a very funny series of capsule film reviews written from the perspective of the notoriously humorless, cat-loving Objectivist.

For example…

“Old Yeller”
A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children. — Four stars.

“The Muppets Take Manhattan”
This movie was a disappointment. The Muppets do not take Manhattan at all. They merely visit it. — No stars.

Another pig farmer fails to do his job. — No stars.

Brilliantly penned by The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, the article immediately hit #1 on The New Yorker’s Most Popular chart, where it stayed for several days:

The day after the New Yorker article went live, accusations of plagiarism started appearing on Twitter, pointing to an article with a similar concept published ten months earlier in the confusingly-named The Newer York.

Sean Gill’s Ayn Rand Reviews 12 Classic Movies didn’t focus on children’s movies, but shared a similar format — concise capsule summaries of films satirizing Rand.

Mallory Ortberg responded:

This offshoot was my favorite exchange:

With a little digging, I found exactly that — an earlier New Yorker article with Ayn Rand movie blurbs, published only seven months before the Sean Gill article.

In the July 29, 2013 issue, John Hodgman wrote “Ask Ayn,” channeling Rand’s opinions on Caddyshack and The Shining, Phil Donahue and “Charlie’s Angels”:

My moral philosophy is founded on the idea that there is an objective reality, and that man’s senses can perceive this objective reality. This faculty, which is man’s reason, is paramount above all else. He takes for evidence only his own experience, his own judgment, and that is why I do not hesitate to say, objectively, definitively, that “Caddyshack” is the year’s best movie.

Rodney Dangerfield plays a self-made man who is not ashamed of his ambition, who does not apologize for his success, and who gets excitement from the joyful reality that we are all going to get laid if we are willing to be productively selfish and to stop coddling the weak. In other movie news, I did not like how easily the boy escaped Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” I have solved all the hedge mazes in the United States and Europe, and I can tell you they are not that complicated.

Seven months after John Hodgman published Ayn Rand movie reviews in the New Yorker, Sean Gill published them in the Newer York. Ten months after that, Mallory Ortberg published her own. All distinct, all original.

The other day, I made up a dumb joke:

“Roughest job in the animal kingdom: cricket comedians.”

It was dumb, but it made me and my friends laugh, so I started to post it to Twitter. Then, on a whim, I searched Twitter’s archives for it. Never do this.

My joke, the one I’d invented moments before, has been posted once or twice every month in different variations by dozens of people for the last three years.

In the sciences, this is called “multiple discovery” — two or more people inventing the same thing on their own — and there are countless well-documented historical examples of the phenomenon, from the invention of calculus to the theory of natural selection.

In comedy, this is called “joke theft.”

In the past, we’d typically only hear about conflicts when there was money to be made. Lawsuits and feuds between underdogs and established artists.

But the inevitable side effect of making vast amounts of our collective creative effort accessible and searchable to the world — combined with the deep interconnectedness of social tools — means we can hear cries of plagiarism on a daily basis from friends and fans, instead of just artists.

The truth is that making anything is hard, and you’re likely to attribute originality and uniqueness to anything made by you or someone you love—and when someone else comes along with the same idea, the natural assumption is that they’re a hack.

This is a cognitive bias worth fighting against, especially if you’re a fan on the sidelines. Plagiarism is a very serious accusation and can be very, very embarrassing if you’re wrong.

Sean Gill, the writer of the earlier Newer York piece, eventually got in touch with Mallory Ortberg on Saturday.

Technology can make it easy to see how obvious your ideas are, if you dare to look. But is that a reason not to make something?

You probably aren’t the first person to come up with an idea, but who cares? That doesn’t mean your version isn’t original. Everything you make is shaped by you, with your fingerprints engraved into it.

I really hope my favorite writers and comics never discover Twitter’s search engine.

Sometimes it’s better not to know.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Thanks to Paul Ford.

    Andy Baio

    Written by

    Andy Baio

    I make web stuff. @waxy, @xoxo, @upcomingorg, @playfic, @supercutorg, Kind of Bloop. Helped build @kickstarter. P.S. I love you.

    The Message

    A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.