Twitter is a powerful tool for the up and coming stand-up or comedy writer. Comics like Rob Delaney and Megan Amram have seen their stock soar since joining the social networking site, its 140-character posts the perfect platform for quickfire humour. Delaney, with over 840,000 followers on Twitter, told The Guardian that the site was “a wonderful joke delivery mechanism”: “I use Twitter as a tool to get involved with people, to sell tickets to gigs where I can stand in a room and smell the audience – and I love that!” Amram, with over 350,000 followers, has become a writer for TV show Parks & Recreation and signed a book deal since joining Twitter.
But the open nature of Twitter, in which millions of users’ past tweets are on view, is also ripe for exploitation by those seeking similar levels of adoration and success but lacking the talent to work for it. This week, Sammy Rhodes (@prodigalsam), an aspiring stand-up comic whose Twitter jokes have gained him over 117,000 followers since joining the site in 2009, was exposed as a long-time plagiarist. Someone (it’s not clear who, but I first saw it via comedian Brian Gaar’s own Twitter feed) had noticed clear similarities between Rhodes tweets and those written by other users of the service, and compiled several examples in a Tumblr blog called Borrowing Sam.
Immediately attacked by dozens of Twitter users, including several well-known comedians and writers, Rhodes offered no apology but instead reposted an old blog entry of his delivering a disingenuous defence of his actions, saying many of his posts were “pretty clearly inspired by” the tweets of users he admires (Delaney and Amram are among those names; he seems to have repurposed at least one of Delaney’s jokes) and claiming he has never knowingly stolen a tweet – but the evidence on the Tumblr seems damning in the extreme. And after proclaiming his innocence, Rhodes has continued to publish tweets that show startling similarity to others’ tweets, his new-found place in the spotlight ensuring that each is swiftly exposed by other users.
Why has this caused such a stir? One reason: the first rule in the comedy community is that you don’t steal other comedians’ material, and Rhodes – a non-professional comic with apparent aspirations of moving up in the field – has done just that on a grand scale. Many comedians rely on their material – even that on Twitter – to make a living; taking that and passing it off as your own work may not be illegal but it’s certainly ill-mannered and intellectually dishonest.
Another: Rhodes’ lack of contrition after being caught out and his mealy-mouthed “inspiration” excuse, which holds little water given how easy Twitter makes it to share other people’s tweets with your own followers. Find a post funny? Simply hit the retweet button. Waiting a few days, weeks or months then passing the joke you so admire off as your own work seems a strange way of showing your appreciation to its originator.
The crux is this: Rhodes has been using others’ ideas to build and enhance his own Twitter “brand”; he has done so very successfully judging by his follower count, not to mention the fact that the Huffington Post (which knows a thing or two about repurposing other people’s work LOL) dedicated an entire article to him, praising his “intellectual giftedness” along the way.
Twitter’s open essence, which enabled Rhodes’ thefts of others’ material, also helped to expose him, by leaving his repurposed posts in full view of anybody who cared to look. With his huge number of followers, it was only a matter of time before people cottoned on to what he was doing. You can’t imagine Rhodes, a psychology graduate, believing he could get away with it forever. He had to have known that one day the game would be up, but perhaps the positive attention has was – and still is – receiving from thousands of strangers on a website was simply too intoxicating. There’s a narcissist in us all and nothing indulges it quite like social media.
His exposure as a plagiarist may ensure a future blacklisted by the comedy community and scupper any chance of spinning his Twitter popularity into a career writing jokes, but it hasn’t done much to diminish his follower count. Indeed, many of his followers have taken to Twitter to leap to his defence. Many more will probably never know he has been outed as a joke thief. They will continue to retweet and favourite his posts. And perhaps, for Sammy Rhodes, each little burst of pleasure he gets from their positive attention is enough to have made his thefts worthwhile.
UPDATE: Since writing this blog post I’ve been blocked by @prodigalsam on Twitter. Ha.