Is attribution really that important?

This post was written for Commons Machinery:

A little over a year ago, I was presented with a fascinating idea: that we have moved beyond the concept of authorship and are more interested in the provider. The basic idea is that “who told me” becomes more important than “who made it”.

This is an important, interesting and valuable distinction. Often, when it comes to authorship, the person who told me the idea and the person who created the idea are the same. But there are many situations where the creator is not relevant to my enjoyment of the information or the importance of the knowledge it imparts.

When we read information on Wikipedia, we are aware that every page is the product of hard-working individuals creating, arguing and re-writing so that we can easily skim the text and think that we “know” something. Who made it? Doesn’t really matter – does it? But who told me? Wikipedia told me. And I will return to Wikipedia for my information needs.

When a teacher explains basic mathematics, the genius creators of the system are totally ignored. The educator’s role supersedes the mathematicians: the information itself is more important than the great minds who first developed it. In some cases we even wrongly attribute – even with the correct information easily available – something like “Who discovered America?” The popular (mis)belief is louder than the real knowledge we have in our brains and libraries.

In our permanent states of information overload, it is more important to follow the right people and sources of information. My information sources are more important to me than the individuals who create that knowledge. If my sources are trustworthy, I get good information. If they are not, I don’t.

by Connor Ullman, used with permission

by Connor Ullman, used with permission

All this is true – but all this does not change the value of attribution. In each case (except Columbus…I don’t understand Columbus), there is a creator who has worked hard to produce something of value. That work should be recognized and appreciated. Not every individual who worked on a Wikipedia article is recognized but we should always recognize the effort of the collective.

This is even truer when the creative work stems from an individual (or a smaller collective than Wikipedia). All the creators of works should be recognized so that they may be appreciated and valued. Some will be rewarded financially; others will be rewarded with our respect. But without attribution, how can we know who to respect?

For example: I like the Depressed Alien comic strip by Connor Ullmann. I particularly loved this one, and I sent the image from my phone to a couple of friends and smiled. But by using this image here (with permission) and attributing the work to Ullmann, we know who made us smile, more people can smile, and Ullmann may be encouraged to continue making us smile. By recognizing someone’s creative skills, we are rewarding them for their insights, talent and work. Isn’t that a great reason for attribution?


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