Monday, September 24, 2007

Blogger Credibility: No Easy Solution

A while back I read a post by Joel Spolsky entitled Bribing Bloggers. The focus of the post seems to be deciding whether or not giving away free products to people to do reviews on them is ethical or not. Joel was approached by a large software vendor with an offer of a free laptop loaded with one of their latest products in the hopes that he would blog about it. The terms of this gift were that it was up to the recipient as to whether or not they even wrote about the machine/software product and what to do with the machine afterwards with suggestions being: keep it, return it or give it away. Joel is of the opinion that "... this is ethically indistinguishable from bribery. Even if no quid-pro-quo is formally required, the gift creates a social obligation of reciprocity."

I'd have to disagree, especially if there is no quid-pro-quo required. I don't know of too many companies that go around handing out money to government officials without expecting something in return. Sure, they say they don't. "It's just a campaign contribution." But you don't see companies contributing to officials that don't have a history of voting in the interests of that company. There definitely is some scratching of backs expected there.

In situations like this, I don't think there is anything wrong with giving away products. I don't base the credibility of any blogger whose work I read on how they acquired the item to be reviewed. Did they write the software themselves? Did Evil Co. give it to them? Or did they go out and spend $2,999.95 of their own money on Benevolent Ltd.'s latest whatsamajigger. There's always an angle. The trick as a reader is knowing what the angle is and how it affects the viewpoint of the blogger. If you can't live with what you learn, find someone else to read.

So what have we learned? The credibility of a blogger might start with how they behave in various situations. But it ends with each reader deciding for themselves how far to trust each blogger on different topics in different situations. Let me say that again. It is ever so much more importanter that each reader decide how credible each blogger is. There could be hundreds of reasons why they write the way they do. If a blogger thinks that means they can not accept free products from companies with vested interests in those products, so be it, but that is no more important than knowing that ease of use is more important than versatility to the blogger you're reading.

Example 1) Joel seems to like Benevolent Ltd.'s products because they are incredibly usable. Not bad criteria when looking for items to purchase. Personally though I always find myself thinking "Benevolent Ltd. hasn't made a(n) [insert product here] that has accomplished all the tasks I would ask of that [insert product here] since the mid-eighties. But I can buy another company's [insert... blah blah blah] that is more-or-less equivalent. Maybe it is not quite as easy to use or it's not as pretty. So what. The color might not be the exact shade of white that I like and it may take an extra step to accomplish the task I want, but it does do everything I want and I can even change the batteries. All for a better price point. Who the heck would like Benevolent stuff? Must be zealotry." I do realize this puts me in a severe minority most of the time and my opinions differ with this particular blogger. But I already know how far to trust each blogger on various topics because I've read so much of what they have to say and figured out how far to trust them.

Example 2) This is a more hypothetical situation. A blogger may only post positive reviews of products. Does that necessarily mean that blogger is a corporate shill? Or did that blogger choose to write only about products they want to endorse and skip the bad ones. Maybe they were trying to create a "What's Hot" sort of feeling and save their readers from the "What's Not" negativosity. Again, knowing how the blogger's values compare to your own and knowing the blogger's track record is what's important.

I suppose I am writing a response to this because Joel's piece came off a bit snooty and condescending to me. It is always possible that I don't have the same view as Joel because no one reads my blog and I have never been offered a free product to gab about, nor have I been accused of selling out because I blogged about a piece of hardware that I just really liked. Fair enough. A quote from Joel, "Effectively [the company has] bought publicity and goodwill. And even though the blogger has fully disclosed what happened, their message is corrupting the medium." Corrupting the medium? The medium of blogging is already as far gone as the Internet in general. Can it really be corrupted anymore? Some broad sweeping marketing campaign by Evil-Benevolent, Co., Ltd. is not going to change my opinion of any blogger, good or bad. Only that blogger's reaction to said promotion will change my opinion of the blogger. Didn't we have this credibility problem before vendors started giving away freebies to bloggers? Can a blogger not be trusted to write an honest review just because the topic item was a gift? Are bloggers just not able to tell the truth and not suck up if they accept a gift? And most importantly, can readers not be trusted to pick out the intelligent, socially responsible bloggers from the corrupt?

And in the end, the company sort of got what they wanted anyway. They may not have gotten a favorable review, but Joel did mention their name and products. And even though I disagree on this topic, Joel still seems like a pretty smart individual, I know another topic on which our opinions differ and I continue reading his blog.

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