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I was recently sent an article by a reader who asked me for my thoughts on the argument that bloggers are increasingly selling out to corporate interests.
Last month, Rory Cellan-Jones, a technology correspondent for the BBC, posted an entry on BBC's dot.life blog and asked:
"Has the blogosphere sold out and become just one big corporate playground? And have the very people who used to sneer at “MSM” (the mainstream media) been captured by big business – one of the charges they used to fling at their old economy rivals?"
Three things led him to ask this question:
- He ran into a company that had hired a "digital marketing consultant" to promote itself in the blogosphere.
- He found out that a friend had started a business writing blog posts for corporate executives who are incapable of writing blogs themselves.
- He has been seeing more and more bloggers who eagerly accept "support" from big companies.
Cellan-Jones details the stories of each and notes in conclusion:
"In summary we've got bloggers switching seamlessly between personal and corporate roles, we've got blogs which might seem personal but are written by someone else, and we've 'independent' technology bloggers who are happy for the technology firms to pick up the tab for their trips.
"I know, I know, many of you will say this has all been happening for years, and the mainstream media are just as guilty of conflicts of interest. But there's still a tendency to see the blogosphere as wonderfully authentic and free of spin compared with the old media. Is it?"
This is perhaps the most important question.
The belief that the blogosphere is a democratic, egalitarian and completely authentic platform is quite popular.
Some believe that bloggers will eventually take down the mainstream news media. This, of course, despite the fact that the evidence doesn't seem to support that notion.
In my opinion, not only is the blogosphere just as prone to some of the same problems that many complain about when discussing mainstream media, the situation is actually far worse.
Because the blogosphere is a fragmented place with minimal barriers to entry and lots of players, I would argue that it is far more likely that it will be corrupted by "special" interests - and is.
Let's take the three things that led Cellan-Jones to ask whether the blogosphere has sold out.
Digital Marketing Consultants
It's difficult to shill outside of the blogosphere. After all, it's not as if many individuals and firms have the ability to use newspapers and television networks to "shill" for their clients. There are "filters" in place and due to the nature of these mediums, they can never serve as the "open" and seemingly "infinite" platforms that the internet can.
In the blogosphere there are no barriers to entry. It's not difficult or expensive to set up a blog and it's even far easier to post comments anonymously or using fake names.
This has made it incredibly easy for individuals and firms to create businesses around "promoting" their clients in the blogosphere.
While many "promotional campaigns" are certainly operated transparently and ethically (such as the SeaWorld campaign run by Kami Huyse), others aren't.
How many unethical "digital marketing consultants" are finding niches exploiting the blogosphere? It's impossible to know but I don't think there's any shortage of Dan Ackerman Greenbergs out there.
Ghostwriting is not new and it's not uncommon.
Most individuals with common sense know that statements released by executives in press releases, to media outlets or in letters to customers are highly likely to have been written by somebody other than the executives themselves. Ghostwriting even takes place in the medical research field.
The fact that ghostwriting is being used for blogging is therefore no surprise.
Unfortunately, for a medium that promotes itself as being more "authentic" than any other, the presence of ghostwriting in the blogosphere goes to show that authenticity has more to do with the values of a company or an individual than it has to do with the medium they're communicating in.
The notion that companies whose executives and employees blog, for instance, are communicating more effectively, more transparently and more authentically with their stakeholders is utter nonsense.
These companies can communicate effectively, transparently and authentically in any medium - if they want to.
Unfortunately for the blogosphere, as more people realize that it is not free from "inauthentic" ghostwriters, they'll come to accept that the idealized notions of what the blogosphere is and represents were just that - idealized.
Few media outlets are free from hypothetically-plausible conflict of interest claims.
Cellan-Jones' story of the team from a popular UK gadget blog staying at a big hotel on the Las Vegas strip during CES as part of a "press trip" for a "major electronics firm" highlights what is perhaps the most dangerous threat to the blogosphere.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report noted that, according to a University of Maryland study, only 21% of citizen journalist websites "reported covering their operating costs."
The truth is that it's difficult for the most serious bloggers to make money and provide expansive, in-depth original coverage.
To put this in perspective, as I recently pointed out, consider that TechCrunch, arguably the most popular technology blog, only pulled in $3m in revenue in 2007.
Even though it's reportedly profitable, if founder Michael Arrington (who believes that he and his blog buddies will eventually kill off the newspapers, amongst other industries), had to provide the same type of journalism that newspapers and other mainstream news media companies engage in (often across a wide geographic area), it would probably be impossible to do so with even $10m in annual revenue.
Thus, I'd argue that bloggers looking to provide wider coverage are probably much more likely to accept the "support" of a large company in ways that go well-beyond the type of advertising relationships that support the mainstream news media.
After all, a newspaper reporter, for instance, attending CES is there using the financial resources of his employer - the newspaper.
Although it's conceivable that a major electronics firm advertises with the newspaper, it would be disingenuous to argue that a newspaper reporter employed by a newspaper who counts an electronics firm as an advertiser likely has a serious conflict of interest.
The bloggers on an electronics firm's "press trip," on the other hand, clearly do.
Unlike the newspaper reporter, who is at CES to report for his employer, the bloggers are there on the expense account of a corporation who really has no obvious legitimate interest in paying for them to be there.
The risk of a conflict of interest materializing into something unethical is, in my opinion, far lower in the first scenario and much higher in the second.
Exacerbating the situation, of course, is Cellan-Jones' observation that:
"Now, as far as I can see, the blog in question didn't give said manufacturer an easy ride, but I also couldn't spot any disclosure on their site about how their coverage had been funded."
This highlights that fact that because there are clearly no widely-held ethical standards in the blogosphere, one man's conflict of interest is another man's non-issue.
Compare this, on the other hand, to the large entities in the mainstream news media, which, in my opinion, do adhere fairly well to commonly-accepted editorial standards.
At the end of the day, the question "Has the blogosphere sold out?" is only appropriate if you truly believe that the blogosphere was the pure democratic and egalitarian medium that some have promoted it as in the first place.
I've pointed out in the past that many of the individuals attempting to build their own media empires through blogging enjoy taking pot shots at the mainstream media and media moguls but don't seem to have any qualms about taking their place.
To rephrase something I wrote on my blog last week:
"Blogging purists will be disappointed to learn that the much-ballyhooed democratization of the news media is not about making the news media more egalitarian and transparent inasmuch as it is about making money. The prominent players in the blogosphere don't hate mainstream media - they want to take what the mainstream media has by convincing the world that they're simply trying to offer a better, purer model."
For the most part, they never were in the first place.
If there's any major company that wants to send me to Fiji as part of a one-way "press trip," please don't hesitate to contact me.