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Asymmetrical Attribution

The New York Times Special Edition project was a great success. This collaboratively made knock-off of the New York Times was dated July 4, 2009, months into the future from the morning of November 12, 2008 when 100s of volunteers distributed these papers on the streets of New York City. The 14 page perfect replica contained all the news that the creators of the newspaper hoped to print, including the end of the war in Iraq, the arrival of universal health care, and a new maximum wage law. The paper was fake, but at first glance it caught its readers in a moment of belief. Though the news was obviously impossible, it was convincing because it was so well crafted, and so realistically handed out on the streets by volunteers wearing New York Times aprons. Bogs went crazy, the project sped through the national and international press and copies of the paper immediately appeared on eBay as collectors items. 

The project was conceived by two to four people, organized by a group of 10, created by an even larger group of 50, and distributed by hundreds of others on the streets of New York. It was by all accounts a successful collaboration. An internal conflict over leadership amongst the group of 10 organizers resulted in one person leaving the group; this is not unusual, and not the focus here. The organizers worked tirelessly for months leading up to the day of the event, managing the team of people creating the newspaper and the companion website.

The first outlet to cover the event was Gawker. The first Gawker post that appeared cited the location of the main distribution van. Once Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan realized this was breaking news, they did some more research, and found one of the organizational emails describing the planned event. These emails were being circulated amongst a private, but fairly open group. The emails were not signed, and they were from an as-yet unknown domain, becausewewantit.org, that was purchased simply as a cover to distribute those emails from; it was allowed to lapse, and is now squatted by an advertiser. Gawker matched the IP address in the long header of the email to other IP addresses of the activist duo The Yes Men, and updated the post attributing the authorship to The Yes Men. Hamilton Nolan wrote

“The email address that sent out this message was linked to the site of The Yes Men, longtime liberal prank group that has been doing things just as complex and finely tuned as this for years. The Yes Men run the Because We Want It site, through which they set up this prank. They wanted to be anonymous for a while allegedly, but too late.”

And from then on, the project authorship was assigned to The Yes Men. The group of organizers sent out a press release later in the day from the email address “New York Times Special Edition <special[at]nytimes-se.com>”. Nowhere in the email is attribution given, or authorship claimed. Rather, inquiries are directed to “writers@nytimes-se.com.” But as that press release spread across the Internet it was referred to as a Yes Men press release. Even the New York Times itself fell into this pattern in one of their several articles on the New York Times Special Edition, stating that “On Wednesday, the Yes Men issued a statement about the prank,” and linking to this appearance of the press release: <www.poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=13699> <cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/pranksters-spoof-the-times/>.

The server was in fact a Yes Men server, and one of the Yes Men was one of the project originators and key organizers, but the most important factor here is that the collective had no way to define their own identity in the face of the powerful media coverage that had pinned it to a known entity. One of the Yes Men was a central organizer, but it wasn’t “a Yes Men project”. It was a project by a large coalition of pretty well known artists and activist groups.

And then the news started emailing special@nytimes-se.com for interviews. From a group of 50, how do you choose a representative? This is always a problem when a project gets major attention. Who gets interviewed? Who represents the project at festivals? Who receives the awards, if there are awards? In most instances with this project, Andy Bichlbaum and Steve Lambert were the representatives. They were the two of the four who had originally conceived the project that carried it through to completion, raising the funds, and coordinating the massive team of volunteers. In their CNN interview they repeatedly emphasized that the project was conceived, organized, and executed by a large group of people, and that they are there as representatives of that larger group <www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO6Oi3XUYgg>. Steve Lambert's website documents the project and lists every single volunteer and group that worked on or sponsored the project <www.visitsteve.com/work/the-ny-times-special-edition/>. And yet, Gawker's rushed attribution still sticks to the project, highlighting the problems in contesting representation amidst massive asymmetries of broadcast power. 

Here the problem arises when a collaboratively produced project are ‘privatized’ through their representation by individuals. How can such impositions be prevented or, at least, limited? In this case, at the outset every effort was made to not make this a project of The Yes Men, but society and the media at large is so preoccupied with assigning authorship that the first question Gawker wanted to know was “Who made this?” As the event was unfolding they found an answer that was satisfactory enough for them, and that incorrect answer became the story that was told from that point onwards.

This scenario raises a number of questions. One problem this highlights is that ownership of URLs and servers often equates into ownership of projects: So who registers the URL, and who maintains the server? But the larger question is how do you negotiate attribution in a collaboration where there are significant imbalances in power: Different collaborators have different media presences. And how do you negotiate attribution when there are many organizers, and many collaborators, who are working on something that is almost certain to achieve a large degree of impact?

There has been error in communication with Booktype server. Not sure right now where is the problem.

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