On Ethical Weblogging (Part One)

03/04/2003

Update: Wednesday March 5 – The text of this post has been slightly edited and adjusted in an attempt to tighten up and clarify my argument. I believe that my position is essentially the same, but you are advised that some of the comments that follow this post were responses to an earlier version.

With Blogger’s acquisition by Google, the weblog space has changed more fundamentally than I think any of us had previously realised. The main impact of that acquisition is not faster servers or a better weblog infrastructure, it’s that marketing and public relations firms – always more brand-conscious than perhaps they should be – have noticed Google turn our way, and (carefully following the integrity-based brand’s line-of-sight) have finally noticed us… “What is this new grassroots phenomena?” they seem to be asking – as if the press hadn’t written about almost nothing else on the web for the last three years, “… and how can we get it promoting Dr Pepper?”

First things first – why should they care? They should care because there are hundreds of thousands of weblogs out there – and they’re all connected to each another, spreading information and ideas around the web at tremendous speeds. The bums-on-seats factor is huge – get something on Metafilter and you can guarantee thousands of views. Get it on b3ta, tens of thousands. Get it on Slashdot, hundreds of thousands. And that’s not including the impact of the thousands of personal sites. Nor does it include the people who read those sites, pick up links and e-mail them to their friends, to their bosses, girlfriends and mums. Weblogs are becoming the natural meme ecology – almost as good at spreading ideas as e-mail but with one particular advantage for marketeers – their sole raison d’etre is to point people at other web pages. They are almost inherently a tool for rating and promotion. They are public opinion made manifest. In fact the only mystery is that marketers haven’t been trying to exploit them before…

Doc Searls has argued that this incursion by marketeers will be routed around – like so much censorship or damage – by the distributed nature of weblogging. I’m less convinced, and the reason I’m not convinced is that to a lesser – and mostly unacknowledged – extent, weblogs have already had their integrity ‘corrupted’ – we’re already advertising things for companies in return for money. The most common and widespread form of integrity-reducing advertising we are undertaking are Amazon referrals. I’m not taking a high-ground here – I often place them on my site when I’ve bought something that I thought was particularly good, or wanted to reward an artist I like. We don’t tend to think of them as interfering with our credibility or compromising our integrity – but we make more money if we write in a way that puts more Amazon links into our sites, and we make money if those links are recommendations….

The ‘Project Blogger’ approach is a simple and effective one – you make webloggers (members of the public) feel important and special as ‘in the know’ opinion formers. You ask for nothing in return because that could be perceived as pressure. Inevitably this will be something that people sign up to believing that there’s no price to pay. Except they’ve been given expensive and cool things by a marketing organisation – so there’s always the pressure of a threatened withdrawal. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and you pay with the soul of your site – the place you’ve carved out as a place of personal expression becomes yet another platform to sell rich teenagers Nike shoes…

There’s a really good article about weblogs as marketing devices over at chronotope at the moment which I think drags a lot of the issues into the light of day. There does seem to be a perceptual difference between the analysis of weblogs from outside and attempts to manipulate them or direct them through advertising or promotional approaches. The people behind this campaigning strategy honestly cannot seem to see how their work might deform or debase the integrity of individual sites, and I suppose we couldn’t expect them too. But this does seem to me to be the crux of the issue – that as soon as advertising enters the space of personal publishing, integrity becomes questionable – the particular authenticity of weblogs and diarist content becomes under threat.

So now that the marketeers and public relations people have turned towards us – what are we to do about it? The idea that weblogging would need any kind of united sense of ethics hasn’t previously been very palatable to people, but I think that’s changing – Nick Denton has made some very sensible comments on Blogger Freebies that try to clarify what an individual’s responsibilities might be considered to be and he in turn links to Mitch Ratcliffe’s Ethics and Blogging and Rebecca Blood’s piece on Weblog ethics. In turn Rebecca mentions Dave Winer’s position from quite a while ago. There’s a resurgence of interest in the rights and responsibilities of the ‘good’ weblogger, which I think should now probably be opened up for debate and discussed at greater length.

So what do you think? What are the particular ethics of writing a weblog? Is it possible to preserve your integrity while taking advertising?

Addendum added August 2006: For more on this issue you should read my later post On Ethical Weblogging (Part Two).