Yarn Spinning of Adequate Stupidity

Adequate stupidity?

Yes, I think that about sums up “spinning,” a process that uses software to generate what Spinrobot.com claims is “legible, grammatically correct … syntax” with a single click.

Spinning software is designed to allow you to revise written material in seconds by generating synonyms to replace at least 20% of the words in a piece. Proponents promise the process will produce an article that is just different enough to be unique in the eyes of Google’s all-powerful search engines—not produce great literature.

I can’t really say whether spinning actually fools Google, and I can’t imagine it could produce great literature, but I am confident it can provide you a good laugh. I first learned about spinning—and saw evidence of it—this week through a discussion on a LinkedIn group for writers and editors.

The evidence comes from the Cyprus Times, which rather inexplicably posted this unattributed review on March 6 of a New York production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The review is easily identifiable as a sort-of-revised, mostly-purloined version of this review by Anita Gates that appeared a day earlier in the New York Times. 

Read on its own, the Cyprus version is more baffling than funny, beginning from its opening lines: “Celia, a small ancillary impression in As You Like It, now during a New Victory Theater in a honeyed and worldly new entertainment for all ages…”.

But when you read those lines next to the NYT opening—“Celia, a mere supporting character in As You Like It — now at the New Victory Theater in a sweet and sophisticated new staging for all ages…”—and it becomes amusingly apparent that particular words have simply been replaced with thesaurus-approved synonyms.

The review in the Cyprus Times, which Wikipedia tells me is the leading English-language newspaper in North Cyprus, informs readers that “Shakespearean comedies can get a small PG-13,” but says this production “stays glorious rudimentary Shakespeare.” (NYT translation: “remains excellent introductory Shakespeare.”)

If I had not seen this Cyprus Times article in conjunction with a discussion on spinning, I might have blamed the unwieldy English on translation errors. But once I learned about spinning, I can clearly spot evidence of revisions that would seem wise only to a piece of software. For example, most every “the” from the NYT review has been replaced with “a” in the Cyprus version. Such changes might seem minor, but they lead to silly-sounding phrases, such as “set in a early 20th century,” or significant twists in meaning: “wild about a boar” does not equal “wild about the boar.”

I made a brief investigation this week through the all-knowing Google and discovered a whole “spinning” world, with users and advertisers debating not the ethics or wisdom of the method, but which software or process can reproduce and “revise” the fastest and easiest.  Apparently, spinning is how writers who agree to write web content for pennies-a-word can survive: produce one piece then quickly churn out multiple versions that will be just-different-enough to be deemed unique by Google search bots.

Of course, if you can spin multiple versions of your own work so quickly and easily, how much quicker and easier could it be to spin multiple versions of someone else’s work? From what I could see, the spinning sites don’t address that or other ethical or legal questions, but I didn’t get beyond the first pages of most of the sites as I was unwilling to provide identifying information required to go deeper into the material.

So, should copyright holders and teachers on the lookout for plagiarized material be worried that such software exists in the world? Well, I definitely think they should be aware that spinning exists, but I’m not so sure they should be alarmed—at least yet.

As long as spinning renders “adolescent angst” as “youth stress”; “devoted to” as “clinging to”; and “to keep track of” as “to keep lane of,” most native English speakers will be able to spot the impostors with ease.

The best contribution of current creations may be to prove that software developed to produce synonyms can’t adequately reproduce the richness of the English language, which the NYT might describe as having “just enough silliness” to make spinning a display of “usually adequate stupidity.”

I have to admit, though, that even while I’m snickering at these results, the idea that this process exists and apparently is being used openly and fairly frequently makes me nervous. Does it bother you too? Am I missing something? Is there a way spinning could be used for legitimate purposes? I would love to hear from you if you know more about this method or just want to discuss spinning and what it produces.

March 15, 2013

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