Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.

But…

Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:

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That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:

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I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:

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That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…

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Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.

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(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):

bearing4

A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:

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Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.


The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…

enkidu1

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Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

17 thoughts on “Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot”

  1. I have taken to reminding bearing about how his fans and subscribers are harassing people every time I see one of his comments on YT. Nothing flashy, just “Hey, I jfeel you should know that your fans are still harassing people that you have made videos about. Just thought I’d remind you, in case you should suddenly start giving a damn”.

    The response from the bearingites has been… Well, less than welcoming, but papa bear himself has yet to offer a reply.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a moral question. Bearing displays a disregard for the well-being of his fellow humans. He knows something bad is going to happen, at least partly as a consequence of his actions, and he has specifically refused to take common sense measures to minimize the harm. In fact, when a feminist recently put out a paper suggesting ways people could deal with dogpiles, he trashed it on his channel. SO he won’t help people, and he will mock people who do try. That’s ethically pretty fucking vile.

    Whenever you put words or ideas out into the world, you are trying to achieve a result. You want to affect something. Otherwise there would be no point in saying anything. Your desired effect may be small or large, selfish or magnanimous, or who knows what, but it is in there. So when your words DO have an effect, a predictable effect, you should look at it. Is it the one you want? If yes, cool! If no, you change strategy. So being that he refuses to change his strategy, it is logical to assume he is getting the effect he wants (or he is an idiot).

    I know his followers are going to keep banging on their one note. “He is not responsible for others!” – but other than reductionist simplicity (you could fit it on a bumper sticker!) it doesn’t have much going for it. It is black and white in a grey world, extremely unkind, and not matching up well with reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doing something about it would look to his followers like a sign of weakness, and like the hyenas they are they’d fall on him in a frenzy. It would cost him his followers, his views, his clicks and whatever profit he makes off his channel, and that’s what is important to him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My thoughts on stuff like this in general is that yes, there are people out there that take it too far. They’re called extremists. But, my problem with anti-sjws/sjws (and online arguments in general) is that some of their argument skills wouldn’t work in an actual debate. Going into any professional setting and calling your opponent an “sjw” would probably get you laughed offstage. Another problem I have is how most people like this normally bring up some statistics and say this instantly makes them win. You also have to actually have a really good claim to go along with these stats. Also, there is the fact that some stats could be outdated or wrong. There is also a very noticeable “us vs. them” mentality in online arguments. Stuff like what Philip brought up happens quite a bit online, where people dogpile on one person despite how many warnings they give. Hell, even if Bearing had a giant neon sign telling his fans not to attack anyone, they would still do it. I keep on trying to find people I disagree with stay rational while having a good opposing argument. I’ve watched some professional debates, and I don’t come out hating one side, I like both sides equally, looking at the evidence, and deciding for myself. (In terms of the “SJW vs. Anti-SJW argument, I’m pretty neutral on it and think every side has its extremists.

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  3. This is brilliantly done. Thank you! I have long eschewed YouTube (along with reddit and other parts of the internet where the value for time invested seems far too unbalanced. It’s lovely to see such a clear breakdown of what is wrong with the YouTube world from someone who yet braves it on occasion!

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    1. Thanks, Grace. I’m definitely coming round to the idea that time spent on YT is unbalanced (in many different ways!).

      Like

  4. (Sorry, meant to comment on the post, not the reply.)
    My thoughts on stuff like this in general is that yes, there are people out there that take it too far. They’re called extremists. But, my problem with anti-sjws/sjws (and online arguments in general) is that some of their argument skills wouldn’t work in an actual debate. Going into any professional setting and calling your opponent an “sjw” would probably get you laughed offstage. Another problem I have is how most people like this normally bring up some statistics and say this instantly makes them win. You also have to actually have a really good claim to go along with these stats. Also, there is the fact that some stats could be outdated or wrong. There is also a very noticeable “us vs. them” mentality in online arguments. Stuff like what Philip brought up happens quite a bit online, where people dogpile on one person despite how many warnings they give. Hell, even if Bearing had a giant neon sign telling his fans not to attack anyone, they would still do it. I keep on trying to find people I disagree with stay rational while having a good opposing argument. I’ve watched some professional debates, and I don’t come out hating one side, I like both sides equally, looking at the evidence, and deciding for myself. (In terms of the “SJW vs. Anti-SJW argument, I’m pretty neutral on it and think every side has its extremists.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “important tweet”

    Not sure if that counts technically as an oxymoron, but it kind of jumps out of the page at you. (Prior to 2006, it would probably have got you a place in the Penguin Book of Modern Poetry.)

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    1. Well, it depends on your perspective. I think it’s an important message, particularly when a number of the hateful abusive comments screen-grabbed in the post above were directed at a teenager.

      I was therefore very pleased to see Hank Green’s important tweet pointing out that stirring up hatred among a certain demographic is indeed “a shitty thing to do”.

      [Edit 18/12/2016 to conceal identity of teenager]

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  6. What I love is the sense of entitlement. Like, “If she’d let us comment on the thing, we wouldn’t abuse her.” Seriously? 1) No, it would not have ended there 2) No one said she had to allow you to do anything on her channel, let alone comment. They are petty, childish and nasty human beings. It’s among one of the many reason why I left YT and I am never coming back.

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  7. Dear Professor Moriarty,

    I was going to write a long post, but then I found this article about Johnny Ball which said what I wanted to say more succinctly:

    http://www.sussexlife.co.uk/education/johnny_ball_on_why_the_right_teacher_really_does_make_all_the_difference_1_3780737

    The point is that the kinds of people which best engage with the public have not necessarily come through the traditional academic pathway (i.e. undergrad, Masters, PhD, Fellowship,…) but have more likely faced a gladiatorial struggle to get recognised.

    In addition, there is a long tradition of satire against academic scholarship. More popularly, something like the Newman and Baddiel History Today skit:

    But I’m also thinking of George Eliot’s character “Edward Casaubon” from Middlemarch who does not realise the tragedy of what he has become. That is, Casaubon is engaged in a “masterwork” called the “Key to All Mythologies”. Yet the tragedy of his situation is that the work will remain forever incomplete (i.e. foreshadowing Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems by approx sixty years).

    Even older is the poem “Devil Amongst the Scholars” by Thomas More. I won’t post the full poem but I will post the following extract:

    So have I known a hopeful youth
    Sit down in quest of lore and truth,
    With tomes sufficient to confound him,
    Like Tohu Bohu, heapt around him, –
    Mamurra stuck to Theophrastus,
    And Galen tumbling o’er Bombastus.
    (lines 12 – 17)

    The conceit of this poem is that because science and knowledge progress so quickly, old arguments date equally rapidly and inconsistencies have a habit of emerging within even the most “solid” of disciplines. Hence, an open mind coupled with a dose of skepticism is required.

    It then also follows that anyone proposing a new argument will automatically be held up to scrutiny, even if this may seem obvious. For that reason I would expect at least some negative comments and ad hominems as a part of the legitimating process. Can you imagine, for example, a steering committee meeting of a STEM project where a member of the consortium had not delivered on what they were asked? Or that the data was vague, biased and incomplete? What do we then make of the moderator from the funding body who then starts to not only attack the poor quality of the work, but begins to suspect that a fraud might have been committed?

    This leads me into the SJW/anti-SJW thing. For reasons already outlined I would strongly advise that one remain impartial. Indeed, whilst you cite “Bearing” and “Thunderf00t”, there are many other YouTube channels which are also “anti-SJW” such as Diana Davison’s Feminism LOL channel:
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVRQqUgDRBevsDGOeE1DL3A

    In conclusion, all it takes is that one “Popper swan” to change a person’s mind.

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  8. If you haven’t seen it, you might be interested in the recent exchange between Bearing and The Ranting Feminist:

    In this conversation, Bearing points out how he’s against bullying and tells his audience not to harass anyone he makes videos about, and that’s the extent of his control over his audience; he says that he keeps the link to the original video for integrity purposes; he describes the kind of content he targets, and in regards to the video that this conversation revolved around, mentions that he felt particularly inclined to respond because of ‘K. Winters’ Posse’ encouraging the girl without kindly correcting her egregiously false statistics as the seniors ‘on her side’, making the only criticism come from ‘the other side’.

    The Ranting Feminist makes the point that Bearing should, perhaps, choose more discrete ways of responding to the smaller channels with younger creators. She points out the inevitability of nasty people being directed to the channels Bearing responds to. She states that she personally feels sorry for the small channels making pro-feminist videos, because she knows they’ll get hate, and so doesn’t want to criticize them.

    The conversation ends with a “See, we can have a nice chat despite disagreeing; hope we can do it again” from both sides.

    And there’s a nice comedy moment when the Ranting Feminist discovers an ant and has to explain to us non-Australians that she wasn’t trying to kill it with skimpy undergarments, but a simple sandal with a three-point strap that’s held between the toes.

    That’s the bones of the conversation (and some fun), I left out most counter-arguments and some other points. This is purely from memory.

    Like

    1. Thanks for that comment and helpful summary.

      Re. this point: “…and in regards to the video that this conversation revolved around, mentions that he felt particularly inclined to respond because of ‘K. Winters’ Posse’ encouraging the girl without kindly correcting her egregiously false statistics as the seniors ‘on her side’, making the only criticism come from ‘the other side’.

      So he knows full well that when he makes his video the channel in question will be hit by torrents of abusive comments, because that’s what happens when he makes any of his videos criticising that type of channel. He is fully aware that a teenage girl will receive the type of hateful abuse that’s described in the post above.

      If he really was concerned about correcting errors made re. statistics why didn’t he at least attempt to start a conversation in the comments section under the video in question with the video-maker in question? Why doesn’t he address this in a one-to-one conversation, particularly as he knows what’s going to happen when he makes his video?

      But if he does that, of course, he won’t pull in the views (and the income) that he knows he’ll receive when he makes his video. As I say in the post above, he can’t dictate what that especially dim subset of his subscriber base is going to do. But he knows full well that there’s a strong correlation between what videos he makes and the level of abuse that follows (again, see above). So his arguments about “integrity” hold no water.

      Once again, Hank Green puts it so much more pithily than I ever could:

      The bear knows on just what side his bread is buttered.

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  9. The comment below was left under another blog post unrelated to Mr. “Bearing” (whose name turns out to be Patrick, as he told his YouTube audience recently). I’ll address it here.

    ——————–

    “talksaboutstuff

    December 6th, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Edit
    That youtuber you critiqued (bearing) got terminated for copyright infringement. What are your thoughts on this?”

    ______________

    Patrick ripped off the Total Drama Island character for his avatar, icon, and persona. He built an entire YT “brand” around a cartoon he did not draw.

    That was bad enough, and the makers of Total Drama Island would be entirely within their rights to complain if this was all that Patrick “Bearing” did. But he went even further. He set up a merchandise shop selling “branded” goods at up to $50 a pop, based entirely around a character that he ripped off. That’s intellectual property theft — simple as that.

    Patrick is a musician. How would he feel if a song he wrote was ripped off and sold by another artist without him getting any credit (or payment!) at all?

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