Commentary

John Green Is No Longer In Love With A Sentence He Wrote


One of the sweeter YouTube videos I’ve seen recently has a lesson in it, too.

John Green, of the VlogBrothers channel, recently essayed about a single quote from his 2008 book, "Paper Towns," that’s taken on a life of its own.

It’s this one: “I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met.”

That’s good, and Green thinks so, too.

But as he discovered recently, it’s not in his book. And he never wrote that line.

He’s gone along for years supposing he did. It’s not un-John Green -- and as he now posts on YouTube, “How many of us have failed to fact-check something on the Internet? Most, I would think.” 

In this case, John Green didn’t fact-check his own book. It sounds like a totally legit mistake because the quote is not something unlike what John Green could have written and because what he does for a living is largely, write and talk, you could see how he could be mistaken about some of his own inventory.  In his YouTube explanation, he acknowledged he didn’t really remember writing the line but he also admitted he once asked the director why some scenes were in the film version of "Paper Towns" and was told, “Because they’re in the book.”

“Oh yeah,” he quoted himself, responding. John Green does have a sort of absent-minded professor thing going for him.

This is not a Brian Williams-level slip-up, but it’s not a bad example of how something that’s plausible becomes fact in what is kind of a six degrees of fabrication. It's easier to understand Green’s explanations than the stories told by Williams, unfortunately. What somebody writes -- a single sentence or two -- is easier to mis-remember than taking enemy gunfire in a war zone.

Green’s own Web site used to sell a poster with the line on it, attributing it to him. Now he is giving the proceeds to the real author.

The line was written by Melody Truong, a 13-year-old who posted it on her Tumblr account, where it was reposted -- and the fun began. Because it sounded John Green-like and because Truong is a huge fan of his books, which include "The Fault in Our Stars," things got confused over time, and Truong’s invention ended up on all kinds of merchandise and online meme material.

“From Tumblr, the quote — and its misattribution! — spread to Pinterest, to Etsy, to travel sites and personal blogs,” wrote The Washington Post, where I first heard about it. “Green became so accustomed to seeing the quote that he simply assumed it was in the book he’d written seven years before. Then, one of Truong’s friends posted about the incident in a copyright forum on Reddit, accusing Green of ‘accidental plagiarism.’ “

It turns out this is not the first time Green has had a life-meaningful quote attributed to him that he did not make. In the final  episode of “One Tree Hill,” an aphorism that begins, “One day, you’re 17 and you’re planning for someday. And then quietly, without you really ever noticing, someday is today. And then someday is yesterday…” is attributed to him.

He never said it, though Green says he’s been given credit for it “700,000 times” on Tumblr.

Green concludes the episode is a strange powerful example of “how screwed-up credit and sourcing and copyright are on the Internet. We do an epically bad job of acknowledging one another’s work and checking our sources.” With that he announces that soon on Crash Course, the VlogBrothers’ educational YouTube channel, there will be an introductory class on intellectual property and copyright law.

John Green could write a book on the topic.

pj@mediapost.com
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