On Blogs, Blogola, and Media

Yesterday, Patrick at i.never.nu posted a passionate and erudite denunciation of the current trend towards the mainstreaming of blogs. He points out that until recently, many (most?) bloggers were happy to be apart from the mainstream; we revelled in our independence from the need to generate revenue streams and to follow marketing plans. It was all about the voice and the freedom of the format, not the business.

Nowadays we’re seeing more and more blogs created for commercial purposes. I’m not sure he, nor I, are against commercial blogs per se, but what he (and I) don’t like is the selling out of the blog format. The idea of link- and ad-farming your blog, SEOing it beyond recognition, and pandering for link love is rather distasteful for us “old school” bloggers.

On the other hand, are we just being cranky old purists, like the people who were outraged when Dylan picked up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Patrick’s manifesto is mostly about what happens when a blog and the person behind it become a brand, and in particular when the distinction between the person and the brand becomes lost. He really nails it.

Tangential to that discussion is the issue of the merchandising of blogs.

On some blogs I can easily tolerate a few ads here and there, or the odd commercial endorsement. Blogs like The Online Photographer deserve any rewards they can manage to get, because their creators put in a lot of effort and deliver excellent, honest content. What I look for in a blog is integrity; whether it’s a purely personal blog or one that is about a specific topic such as photography or technology, it’s the voice and the intention behind it that catches my attention. That’s what sets the tone of the blog. If the tone appears to be largely commercial, then I lose interest.

A while back I read an article on Marketing Profs (short for “professionals,” not “professors”) called “Blogging for Booty.” It talks about the phenomenon of “Blogola,” in which blog writers accept “gifts” in return for reviewing products, services, television shows, or other commercial goods. With the rising influence of some blogs in the blogosphere, big business is really starting to notice their potential.

Big mainstream media has long had integrity checks and balances in place to prevent unethical payments for dubious endorsements. Ever since the payola scandals in the music industry caused ethics laws and codes of conduct to be put in place, it’s become more difficult to buy favorable publicity and airtime. Big media has very strict rules about what its people can and cannot accept as “gifts” from sponsors.

But the blogosphere has no such laws or codes of conduct; at least not formalized ones. So now we have broadcasters flying big name bloggers out to Hollywood on “blog junkets” to promote movies and new television shows. Public Relations firms are grooming bloggers for positive spin whenever and where ever they can. The blogosphere is the wild, wild west of commercial publicity and promotions; there are no rules, only palms waiting to be greased.

I will confess to having been lightly greased myself. A couple of years ago The Food Network paid me to put a link on this blog to promote Iron Chef America. I’ve also gotten a handful of books from various publishers for me to read and promote, only one of which I have gotten around to as yet. However, in both cases I have not hidden the fact that the endorsement I provided was in exchange for “promotional consideration” as they say on game shows. After all, I do have a stated and published policy about endorsements and sponsorships. (Look for the link in the right-hand column, at the bottom of the “More Blork” section.)

I don’t feel bad about those small endorsements, and I don’t think they count as “blogola.” After all, I did not solicit them, I didn’t gussy-up my book review (it reflects my honest opinion of the book), and I clearly stated them as being what they are. And I don’t think it indicates a slide into decline, at least not in my case (in almost seven years of the Blork Blog I’ve gotten less than $300 worth of goods or cash; and that includes my 12-month experiment with Google Ads).

But I do feel like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff. How can I judge others for accepting payments when I have demonstrated a willingness to do so myself? What would I say if someone from season four of “Top Chef” offered to fly me to New York for the weekend, put me up in a swishy hotel, and have me be the “secret judge” on an episode of the show? (Don’t laugh; that was exactly the case with Andrea Strong in season three.)

Of course I would be tempted. I’m just a regular guy with a blog; why should I say no to a free trip? Who am I to bear the burden of the integrity of the whole blogosphere? I’m only responsible for my own integrity while the blogosphere as a whole is becoming a victim of its own free-form, unregulated success.

Ultimately, those who degrade their integrity do so at their peril; unfortunately all they probably stand to lose is the respect of the “old schoolers” and possibly a listing on the roll call of “those who ruined it.” What they stand to gain is financial rewards (insubstantial in most cases) and the possibility of high standing in the “new old-fashioned mainstream.”

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