A response to the rhetoric of weblog marketing…

09/22/2005

The story so far… Ben Metcalfe takes a vague swipe at the Stormhoek wine that Hugh MacLeod is marketing through the blogosphere. The approach Hugh is taking is to offer free bottles of the wine to webloggers on the understanding that they can write about it if they choose – either positively or negatively. Ben believes this to be a pollution of the weblog ecology and an undermining of the authenticity and personal integrity of individual webloggers who are prepared to put themselves up for sale. Here where things get a little weird, because Hugh responds to Ben’s comments with an extraordinary, and (for my part) quite unfathomable, broadside against the BBC:

The Beeb likes to think it’s in the business of “Empowering People”. Maybe they are, but only if it doesn’t lessen their own power base within the British Establishment. They sneer at commercialism; their currency of choice is control. Are they transparent about that? The hell they are.

Now there’s no point me pretending that I can talk impartially about the BBC in public. After all I consented to work for them, and they pay me for the privilege. So it’s quite lucky then that – having read the posts concerned several times – I can see no relevance to mentioning the BBC in this context at all. The debate seems to me to be in a completely different area. I wrote a comment on Hugh’s site, which I think sum up some of my feelings about marketers giving freebies to webloggers. What follows is a pretty heavily revised version of those comments, edited for readability and rhetorical weight rather than meaning (I hope):

Ben’s comments on the wine marketing move were fairly blunt and I’d probably not be so aggressive, but I certainly don’t think it’s an unreasonable position to take. Hugh and I had similar conversations about whether the Stormhoek experiment was cynical or exploitative at a recent conference we both attended. I have to say I’m still not convinced.

As another commenter suggested, if you’re a ‘citizen’ weblogger all you really have is your name. Weblogs are about authenticity – about people being able to express their voices and opinions. If people get the sense that you’re distorting your opinions for your peers because you get free stuff then it seems to me that they’d have to be less inclined to believe you (and think less of you as a person). And quite rightly – it’s a demonstration of a lack of personal integrity.

Now this case is obviously slightly different, because people are being given the stuff for free and no one is forcing them to write positively about it. But the problem is that people will always find being given free stuff attractive. And that means that – as long as there’s the possibility a negative opinion will result in no more freebies – there will always be a pressure towards playing to the sponsor. A good proportion of people will find this kind of thing completely acceptable, but let’s not pretend that it’s completely impartial, morally neutral and fair. There’s a power dynamic happening here – it is a form of bribery – it just happens to be a fairly mild and gentle form of it in which people don’t really get hurt that badly.

But because it is a form of gentle bribery to say nice things, it seems to me that this means that any positive comment will inevitably be considered dubious by the wider community, and will result in suspicion and a gradual loss of trust. It’s like that old joke that ends, “We’ve established you’re a whore, now we are just haggling over the price…”

The problem is that – at least at the moment, and long may it last – the weblog community determines its heroes and its trusted and noble citizens from smaller but finer-grained metrics than we do in the wider world. We determine who to read based on whether we’ve come to feel a relationship or a personality that means we actually directly like the person or people concerned, whether we trust them, whether they’re the kind of people we would want to associate with or who say things that we respect (or amuse us). And these relationships are more fragile, but deeper and more reciprocal, than those we have with sports heroes and movie stars.

They almost have to be – writing for a weblog is a rapid process that often lends itself to personal and informal writing. It’s harder to keep up a pretense, to hide what you’re like in such an unorchestrated space. So when someone loses our respect, or appears arrogant or when we feel they’re no longer being truthful, then we stop reading. And the brand that they’ve been marketing must get tarnished by this association as well.

It seems to me that marketing of this kind probably has an unfortunate effect on the weblog community, and will probably have mixed results that make some brands very happy but many others slightly damaged. In the case of the wine, it would seem much more sensible to just get the people who make the wine to write their own weblog and use it as a position to talk to the wider world. Perhaps there’s other ways to introduce the wine to a wider community, but the only way it will work is if any perceived link between the weblogger’s opinion and the products on offer for them to try is broken completely. And that’s a bloody hard sell…

There is also one other thing I’d like to say, and I say this with all due respect to Hugh, who I’ve met several times. There seems to be a hell of a lot of mileage recently in grabbing onto a technological trend that’s owned by the people and talking about how it’s going to rip down every aspect of the old world order and replace it with a brave new world without large media / business / governmental organisations. You find a trend and you shout about it in public, waving a fist at the big boys as you threaten to drag them down to their knees. You get invited to a lot of conferences this way. You may even get a book deal. Large companies will invite you to talk to them about why they should employ you to protect them from the future you’ve said will destroy them.

But frankly, it’s all complete balls. The world is changing really rapidly – technology is having a significant impact. I think the idea of tens of millions of individuals expressing their opinions in public is profoundly moving and important and is likely to have all kinds of repercussions that we can’t possibly foresee at the moment. And there are battles to fight and battles to win. But much of the rhetoric simply cannot stand scrutiny.

I’m totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause – and I’m also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web. Weblogs suffer from this enormously. Someone said that every journalist that writes about weblogs thinks that the year they discovered them is the year weblogs went mainstream. I’ve watched this for almost six years now. I now need people to think about what’s more likely to happen – that big media organisations, and governments and businesses will dry up and evaporate, or that some of them will adapt and change to a new ecology, renegotiate their place in the world and have a role in fashioning and supporting whatever it is that’s coming?

Whatever is on the horizon – social software, social media, ubiquitous and pervasive computing, technology everywhere, permanent connectivity, media distribution, mass amateurisation, disintermediation – it’s going to have an enormous impact on our lives. But that impact will probably seem relatively subtle and gradual to those people living through it, and its true effects will probably not be fully recognised for a hell of a long time. So let’s try and be a bit humble about the whole thing, eh? Let’s get excited about possible futures, let’s argue for the changes we think should happen, let’s present ideas and theories and ideas and business models and look to the future and test them and explore them. But please, no more religious wars of us versus them, big versus small, old versus new… We’ve got enough entrenched dogmatic opinions in the world already without creating new ones…