A free and open market in credibility

by Mathew on June 24, 2007 · 7 comments

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about the controversy swirling around Microsoft paying bloggers — including Mike Arrington, Om Malik, Paul Kedrosky, Richard MacManus and Fred Wilson — to provide quotes for an ad campaign about being “people ready” (at this point there’s a fair bit of irony in that phrase, which should probably be changed to “blogosphere ready” — which Microsoft clearly is not). People like Frank Shaw of Waggener Erdstrom (Microsoft’s PR company) see this as just another swarm in the blogosphere echo chamber, but I think there are important issues at stake.

snipshot_e4ws0kr8o31.jpgJohn Battelle says (if I read him correctly) that it’s important to experiment with new forms of conversation, and that the primary issue in this case was disclosure, which Mike Arrington takes him to task for, since he sees it as foisting all the responsibility onto the authors in this case — or “throwing them under the bus,” in Mike’s colourful phrase (the comments on Mike’s post have other opinions, including a fairly snotty one from Rogers Cadenhead). Some have argued that this whole affair is much ado about nothing, since “advertorial” and endorsements occur all the time — including radio ads with TWiT’s Leo Laporte, as Scoble points out (and there’s some more discussion worth reading in Scoble’s comments).

One thing to remember, I think, is that ultimately all the metaphors — comparing this to magazine advertorials or radio ads or Tom Cruise pitching scotch in Japan or whatever — fail because we’re talking about a relatively new medium. Yes, it’s true that TechCrunch.com and GigaOm.com are a lot like magazines, and that makes Mike and Om a lot like journalists (and of course Om has actually been one, and arguably still is) and so people expect them to behave in certain ways. Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not.

In a lot of ways, we’re watching what is effectively a new medium develop its own way of dealing with issues of credibility in real time. Whenever there’s something like Edelman and Wal-Mart, or Microsoft and the Ferrari laptops, or even PayPerPost, it brings up the same questions: How do we judge someone’s credibility? How do we know whom to trust? It’s something I get asked all the time by people still grappling with the blogosphere.

As my friend and fellow mesh organizer Rob Hyndman has suggested — in comments like this one — I think every blogger effectively negotiates a trust relationship with his or her readers every time they write a new post, or submit a quote for an ad, or agree to an endorsement. That’s a lot more complicated and messy than relying on a masthead to carry the freight for you, but at least it puts you in control of your own fate.

The only thing to remember is that trust is a slippery slope — by the time you’ve lost ground, it may already be too late.

  • http://heri.madmedia.ca heri

    i think it’s a lot of talk about nothing. we see it everyday, at Revision3 for example (Kevin Rose “endorsing” products and making no difference in tone with the podcast). and as Michael Arrington says, this is one of the rare source of revenue for bloggers. people expect blogs to be ad-free, with a neutral POV, blogging about breaking news… this is just impossible.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joe Duck

    Yes. This story has fascinated me because among other things it has brought to light the *potential huge deficiency* of having “A list bloggers” and those who help them advertise try to rule the conversation as happened in the early stages of this fiasco. This works in traditional media but it fails in blogs. That’s a *very* good thing.

    The defect is in spite of the fact that these folks are bright and very credible folks. However as you note they are *at risk* of sliding down a new and very slippery slope where money trumps honest conversation. It started to happen here and a lot of people got pissed. (IMHO Tony Hung’s got this all exactly right).

    Also interesting but not surprising is that the best commentary here is coming from people who are not the A listed deal makers of Silicon Valley. Rather than whining about this they should be sending a thank you note to those who are helping to keep them off that slippery slope.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    I like Rob’s suggestion. There is a sense that this is a time where we’re moving through the negotiation of what is and isn’t ethical or appropriate. I wasn’t around to witness the birth of radio or TV broadcasting, but I am sure those who were can tell us about TV news people who also presented the ads — that’s typical still in local “soft news” programming.

  • http://adrianmonck.blogspot.com Adrian Monck

    The newness of the medium isn’t the issue, it’s the oldness of the practice.

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2007/03/25/newspapers-im-not-dead-yet-or-dead-men-walking/ Rob Hyndman

    Wish I could figure out how to describe my ideas as well as you do – mebbe I’d be an A lister too ;)

  • http://glasshouse.waggeneredstrom.com Frank Shaw

    Thoughtful post. You are absolutely right about trust being the central issue; but I still struggle in this case to see any transparency or trust challenges. Saw this article in the NYT today about a slightly similar issue in the magazine world:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/25/business/media/25wine.html

    Here is the relevant piece:
    But Wine Spectator — which describes one South African cabernet in the current issue as having notes of “grilled beef, charcoal, hot tar and truffle” — had to be won over. “At first they said, ‘It’s not for sale,’ ” Mr. Halme said. “They thought it might compromise editorial or clutter the page.”

    But a statement from Dentsu boasts that the ads “look as if they are integrated into editorial.”

    “It’s interesting that they’re bragging about having pulled a fast one,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. “Instead of being transparent about the separation between editorial and advertising content, there is an attempt to blur distinctions.”

    Food (or wine) for thought?

  • Mathew

    Thanks, Frank. There’s no question that blurring the line between editorial and advertising is something that has been going on since print was invented.

    What I find interesting (and different) about the phenomenon when it comes to blogs is that it is a personal brand or credibility that is at stake, rather than one that adheres to an institution or media outlet.

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