Sunday, April 4, 2010

Coffee with a Stranger #4 - Coffee with a Copy Cat or Crazy Coincidence?

How's that for some rock star alliteration?

In mid-March, I did something that we've all vainly done before: I googled myself. Well, more specifically, I googled the title of this blog. I wanted to see if this little project of mine was blowing up the internet with its awesomeness.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found this little gem:

Now, I don't think so highly of myself and my creative brilliance to think that Coffee with a Stranger is a unique, never-thought-of-before idea. But this was a little suspicious. Here, a month or so after I created my blog, was my exact same idea using very similar language on a brand spanking new website designed by some dude on the East Coast. I knew it was brand spanking new because in January, when I started my Coffee with a Stranger blog, I searched to see that no one else was already doing the same project. There was no one, so I got the ball rolling and set up the blog that you're reading at this very moment.

The big question, of course, is whether or not this guy is ripping me off. In all honesty, I'm torn. On the one hand, I'm a naturally suspicious person. I'm the kind of guy who, if I don't receive any mail for a couple of days, assumes that I've got neighbors trying to steal my identity or that my mailman somehow has a crazy vendetta against me. My first reaction was outrage. I thought lots of unpleasant, unprintable thoughts, such as, "Who does this rascal think he is?" or "This situation does not tickle my fancy." I spent that night of discovery pacing the apartment, blathering at my girlfriend while she was trying to sleep, and racking my brain for some connection or six degrees of separation that linked me to the author of this very similar blog. With a work day rapidly approaching, I ended up choking down a couple of beers just to calm down and get some sleep.

On the other hand, and as I mentioned above, I am well aware that Coffee with a Stranger isn't a unique idea. The internet is a big place and maybe it's just a coincidence that we set up the same website within several weeks of each other. Much stranger things have happened in this world of ours. And when I emailed this fellow (yes, I did contact him), he seemed as genuine and earnest as one can be via email when he wrote, "Great minds think alike apparently!" He also claimed that he'd been taking notes on strangers he'd met at Panera Bread outlets for several years, but had just got around to setting up a website to compile all of these interactions.

So what am I supposed to think of this whole situation? I'm really not so sure, although I'm skeptical that this fellow didn't at least see my site before setting up his own. Who doesn't at least google a blog idea/title before setting up their own site?

After a short period of correspondence, I'm no longer in contact with this other blogger. Some friends or friends of friends of mine may or may not have sent him some, how can I put this, un-PG emails. These emails, understandably, were not well received.

As the days have passed since I discovered this other site, I've obviously calmed down a bit and put things in perspective. There's really nothing I can do but keep writing and meeting with strangers, which has been a blast and a great experience. I'm hoping that initial outrage is understandable, though. I really can't think of anything more frustrating for a writer than the possibility that someone has plagiarized your words or ideas. Personally, I have to screw up a lot of courage to even reveal my writing to others. What if it's bad? What if it's stupid? What if it's embarrassing? I put so much time, energy, nail-biting, and over-analysis into every word I write, so the thought of someone stealing those words is kind of a nightmare.

I'd love to hear other thoughts on this whole situation - am I dealing with Coffee with a Copy Cat, Coffee with a Crazy Coincidence, or something gray and messy that lands somewhere in between? If you've got an opinion, please post a comment below or send me an email at