Someone named Vaspers asks What will kill the blogosphere? and thinks the answer is various forms of marketing-driven corruption lying in the direction that PayPerPost is pointing. [Update: Good comments; pile on!]

He might have a point. Assaf Arkin agrees, and declares Labnotes to be a Blogstitution-Free Zone. Among other things, he says “I will not blog favorably about a product/service unless I’ll go out of my way to get it with my own money”.

Commercial pressure on blogs is absolutely increasing; I now get story pitches most days from PR folk, in varying degrees of cluefulness. The lamest are something like “In the SOA-driven Web 2.0 era, enterprises need the awesome power of inferential data integration! We have this vital story, straight from the horse’s mouth! And we can adapt it to your blog format for you!”

On the other hand, some are of the form “I’m a PR consultant working for Frowlotron Information Injectors; they’ve got an XML database with a high-performance Atom adaptor, seems like your kind of stuff, want to take a look or talk to our guys?” I usually don’t, but I also don’t object to this kind of approach at all.

By a weird coincidence, I got one this afternoon:

Hi, this is Amy from Buzztone. I enjoy reading your blog and I was wondering if you would be interested in working together in a promotion.

Legendary artist, Yusuf, formerly Cat Stevens, is releasing his first new album in 28 years this week titled "An Other Cup." I believe some editorial or information about Yusuf’s album will be great for your site. I can provide you with digital assets like photos, bio, news release and a CD for your review.

At one level, kind of irritating about how their stuff will be “great for my site”. But the proposition seems straightforward. I wrote back saying “Sure, send me a CD and I might write about it and I might like it, I liked some of Mr. Stevens’ stuff back in the day.”

Amy wrote back:

Hi Tim, That’s fine. I'll send you the Yusuf CD and you can see what you think. I am also including a CD called Rytems Del Mundo which is a compilation of music by big artist like Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, and Sting remixed with an Afro-Cuban sound. It was done by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social sound. Let me know how you like them and if you end up writing about either of the albums.

If she needs help finding out when a blogger’s writing about her product, a lesson in Technorati 101 would be in order. But still, seems fair enough. And obviously, I like writing about music.

If I write about the music, pro or con, I’d need to disclose that it was a freebie. Professional music reviewers don’t, but that’s fine because we assume they’re all freebies. There’s the potential for corruption, I guess; I might be incented to write glowing reviews of everything so that record companies send me free music. I don’t think I’ll do that, but if I’m transparent enough, my readership is intelligent enough to figure it out one way or another.

So is this just a pleasant perk of having a moderately-popular blog, or am I stepping onto a slippery slope?



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Dec 13 2006, at 22:32)

I think given the rules that you've set for yourself, there's no problem.

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From: Janne (Dec 13 2006, at 23:36)

For people that are writing a blog or equivalent for fun, I don't see any moral hazard at all as long as they're completely upfront about it. And to me that goes up to and including getting paid to post a canned text received from a PR agency. You just start with "Hi everyone, this post below was written by X agency and I'm getting $Y just to post it below! Is that a sweet deal or what?" and you're fine. It marks it off as a commercial just as decisively as a banner or Google Ad would.

For records and other freebies, the same thing would apply. Be clear about what you got and in return for what, and there's no problem. You could even write a glowing review no matter what you actually thought; as long as you start out by saying the review has nothing to do with what you really think and everything with your wish to graduate to reviewing freebie Ferraris you're morally clear.

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From: Joel (Dec 14 2006, at 00:12)

Nah, Cat Stevens is wunderschon. (Warning -- double negative ahead :) I mean you shouldn't not write about somebody just because someone asked you to. (Personally, I'd be more worried about stepping on a banana peel.) Peace out.

(Oh yeah, the disclaimer: I have a cat. His name is Scruffy. He has a blog.)

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From: Sylvain (Dec 14 2006, at 00:24)

It's your blog, you're the one who decides really. Personally I won't mind if you're honest in terms of which context you are doing a review. After that everyone is able to decide for himself/herself if they want to read the post or not. You're not forcing people.

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From: Edward (Dec 14 2006, at 01:42)

I only wish I were in a position to get sent free stuff! I would think reviewing things you get for review is fine, so long as you mention it, and so long as you write what you actually think.

Requests to repost someone else's pre-written article should be ignored as it would dilute the blog with ideas that are not your own, which is rather missing the point of having a personal blog.

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From: Martin Gordon (Dec 14 2006, at 05:09)

I think there's a big difference between receiving a $15 CD for free and receiving a $500 piece of software or hardware for free. Obviously, the latter offers greater incentives for biased reviews since writing favorably increasing the chance of receiving another big ticket item for free (as opposed to another free CD, which isn't as great a "reward").

That said, I'd be more likely to take a review of a free CD at face value than I would for a big ticket item. On the flip side, I'd be more suspicious (and cause greater harm to the credibility of a blogger) if they failed to disclose that a big item was given for free as opposed to a CD that was given for free.

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From: John Snelson (Dec 14 2006, at 06:34)

There is so much choice in the blogosphere that I think people are likley to vote with their feet if they get a hint of marketing. I think in that sense it is probably a self regulating community.

However, people probably like to read honest recommendations from people they trust just as much as they hate to be marketed to.

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From: ed costello (Dec 14 2006, at 07:49)

Why do we hold blogs to a higher level of accountability and transparency than traditional media?

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From: Darren (Dec 14 2006, at 08:26)

I get a pitch for something like this every couple of weeks, and when there's stuff that's interesting, I take a look. I always disclose that somebody gave it to me for free, and none of my readers have complained.

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From: Toivo Lainevool (Dec 14 2006, at 10:02)

I think full disclosure is the key. As long as everyone knows that you always use full disclosure, there won't be a problem with your loyal readers.

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From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Dec 14 2006, at 11:34)

In reviews, I really only care about two issues:

1. Is the review what the writer honestly thinks?

2. Is the item intrinsically interesting to the writer? Eg. if it’s a gadget or software application, is it something that scratches a particular need or want? Or in the case of music, is something the writer might have picked up in his or her casual browsing for their own library?

I’m not very interested in reviews where either answer is “no,” but I don’t mind them either. Conversely if the answers are both “yes,” then I care little whether the writer is getting any perks for the effort. I simply want the honest opinion of people who have an actual interest in the subject of their review.

So as long as any potential conflict of interest is declared up front, I don’t mind one way or the other. I never buy things purely on someone else’s recommendation anyway.

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From: John Cowan (Dec 14 2006, at 12:12)

I don't think the price of the item is particularly relevant, unless you are going to resell it. As long as you disclose that you got your BMW for free when you review it, why should the sticker price change anything?

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From: Danny Howard (Dec 14 2006, at 13:55)

Every time someone makes up a stupid new word with the string "blog" in it, the "blogosphere" edges that much cloesr to its own self-important demise.

At least the Usenet people stuck to making up acronyms. LART! HEh ...

-danny

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From: Gareth McCaughan (Dec 14 2006, at 16:11)

John: the price as such doesn't make a difference, but the value does and value is somewhat correlated with value. The value makes a difference because higher-value freebies constitute a bigger temptation to corruption (of the "I'll be nice about this and maybe they'll send me more" sort).

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From: Assaf (Dec 14 2006, at 16:26)

If you're a professional music reviewer, you get these CDs for free. But you get every new release that comes out, so free is not an incentive. You get more than you could possibly review, so it starts with editing the list for relevance. And it ends with answering this question on behalf of the reader: "would I pay for it out of my own pocket?"

Or, if you want, "would I buy this as a present to someone I love?"

It becomes tricky when you receive freebies once in a blue moon. If you don't have time to walk to the store and sample all the other releases, the free CD on your desk gets preferential editorial treatment. And writing favorably about it guarantees receiving more free stuff.

Paid content did not create this moral dilemma, just brought it to more people. You've been there if you wrote for the high school newspaper, or published a zine. Limited exposure is easier to influence.

I'll be suspicious if all of a sudden your taste in music changes to reflect that which you're receiving for free. Until then, free is just a price point.

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From: Andy K (Dec 15 2006, at 14:37)

I feel that non-spontaneous reviews dilute a blog. Disclosure has to be front and center, that way I can skip that article/post/whatever. If there's too much of it, the blog is usually no more of interest to me.

First of all, what the promoter is offering is 2 free CDs for the chance at placing their "editorial" content on your site. There's the risk you don't like the music, but those 2 CDs only cost them like $2 or something. I bet most bloggers are too polite and happy with 2 free CDS to be negative. There's also the risk that a heart-felt negative review spreads and causes sales damage, but I bet they get enough good reviews to counter that. In the end, they are gaming the personal review circuit, because they will create further advertisement and linkage around the positive reviews.

I guess I expect to read someone's real thoughts and experiences on their blog, not some sort of reality TV. I love to hear reviews about stuff people find on their own, or through their real-world connections, that seems "uninfluenced." But when having a blog becomes the reason you are exposed to the music you blog about, you won't be able to tell me what it is that attracted you to that music in the first place, and it is a slippery slope towards pretend-content.

These are interesting times as the blogosphere goes commercial, but what's interesting is how it's going commercial, not the commercials themselves. For example, if you gave the full correspondance with the promoter before your review, sort of what you just wrote here, I would find that worth reading. I've enjoyed reading another blogger (at 248am.com) that accepts free gifts from _local_ businesses (in addition to doing his own spontaneous reviews), because he then interacts with the businesses and makes a small story out of it--that's interesting.

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December 13, 2006
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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

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