Tech Bloggers: Leave Your Agenda at the Door

by Karoli on November 13, 2007 · 11 comments

Tonight on Twitter I see this from Dave Winer:

Andrew Baron says there has never been a positive reivew of Mahalo and he explains why. http://dembot.com/post/19305296
Dave Winer (davewiner) via web at 22:01

Dave Winer loves to find negative stuff to post about Mahalo and Jason Calacanis, so it was unsurprising to see something pass through Twitter along these lines. Except that I’ve written a positive review of Mahalo, and even though I’m not at the top of the tech writer lists, it did get some attention from folks who were interested in a user’s perspective. So I decided to go read the Andrew “Rocketboom” Baron post and see why he said what he said.

He writes the following:

No, the mission of Mahalo was not born out of an idea to help improve the lives of others. It’s simply to make money for Jason at the expense of people who don’t know better and click on the ads. This is not just what it has turned into as a result, this is the purpose of the site’s existence.

I honestly didn’t understand what he was talking about. I went back to the Steve Jobs page that we used and couldn’t find any misleading ads. So I went to the Dancing with the Stars page, figuring it’s probably a hotter page right now than Steve Jobs, and I did find Ad boxes located in the lower right-hand rail below all of the content. They were clearly labeled as “Ads by Google”, and were in a box with a blue background to differentiate it from the content. There was also an “Ads by Google” area underneath the content in the main box, again clearly labeled.

I can only assume that this post and the following comments have at their foundation, a personal argument with Jason Calacanis. He’s an easy person to have a personal disagreement with — I speak from personal experience on that. I’ve been pretty vocal about my disagreements with Jason Calacanis’ drumbeat against PayPerPost (now Izea), too.

What you tech writers need to understand is that you have a responsibility to leave your personal beefs with people at the door and look objectively at what you’re reviewing, because your site will be the one that someone with no knowledge of the backstory will land on and they will trust you because after all, you must be trusted if Google trusts you, right?

It is as [edited to add] intellectually [/edit] dishonest to dump on a product because you don’t like its creator as it is to write sponsored content and not disclose that the content is sponsored. When you take your grudges and spill them on not only Calacanis, but the other motivated and committed employees of that organization, you do a disservice to them and to the rest of us who are relying on your objectivity to make decisions about the sixty bazillion startups that are out there.

Just today Matthew posted the usual PayPerPost-is-still-evil stuff over on Geek News Central with regard to their new offering, SocialSpark. Only there was a problem with his post — he assumed that disclosure for paid posts was optional. It isn’t, and won’t be with Social Spark either. Even Michael Arrington has acknowledged that there’s nothing wrong with the idea. And just to be clear here, this is what Ted Murphy has to say about disclosure:

PayPerPost already requires mandatory disclosure, we take this a step further in SocialSpark with systematic in-post disclosure via disclosure badge in all sponsored posts. We have also taken away the tone option, leaving tone entirely in the blogger’s hands.

Also this:

All required links in SocialSpark sponsored posts will carry the no-follow tag (or something more appropriate) because? well, I guess the most advanced search algorithms in the world need our help.

It’s clearly disingenuous to write a post dissing someone’s site based on nondisclosure when disclosure is REQUIRED. Hello? But again, there’s bias that is difficult to shed and Matthew did the readers of Geek News Central a disservice by writing from his bias rather than investigating it more carefully.

This is a problem. If you tech bloggers want us to trust you and believe your reviews, positive and negative, be honest about your bias. I know Dave Winer hates Jason Calacanis. I know Todd Cochrane can’t stand PayPerPost. I doubt they could do much of anything to be rehabilitated in his eyes. But not everyone does know this, so they read what you write at face value without weighting your personal bias in there. I don’t know what Andrew Baron’s problem is, but just reading the comments will give anyone with half a brain the understanding that it’s entirely personal, because his responses are irrational.

One last thought on this. On this week’s TWIT, Leo Laporte paused for an ad about Audible.com, which started a riffing session between Leo and Jason Calacanis about Audible. As it happens, I’ve been looking for an audiobook and had been debating about whether to join Audible. Based on their discussion, I did join and am enjoying my audiobook immensely for a much better price than I could have gotten it for elsewhere. Every week Todd Cochrane takes a couple of minutes to talk about GoDaddy.com and how helpful they are to his business. Both Leo and Todd make it clear that they are talking about a sponsor of their shows. I use GoDaddy and Todd’s coupon codes for all of my domain transactions now. I’ve consolidated all the domains at GoDaddy as a result of Todd’s ads.

Why? Because I believe they are trustworthy. If I were a purist I’d argue that they should be ad-free. But I actually BENEFIT from their advertising and my personal experience with GoDaddy and Audible (and many others, by the way) has been positive. How was I harmed by their advertising? I wasn’t. And Leo Laporte knows this — he said at Blogworld that he gets $35 CPM from advertisers because…(drum roll please)…they know his audience buys what he recommends. Why? Because he makes recommendations fairly and without personal bias.

You all could take a lesson or two from Leo on this and quit fighting with each other at the consumer/user’s expense.

Full Disclosure: I used to write for PayPerPost but don’t any more for reasons that have nothing to do with them whatsoever. I do not write for Mahalo. I have no vested interest in any site or product I mentioned in this post with one exception: I do some copyediting for Todd Cochrane from time to time and do not accept pay for that service.

Update 11/14/07: Matthew amended and clarified his position on a new post here to acknowledge the changes in the PayPerPost terms of service. Thank you, Matthew. I’d also like to add that each and every post *is* reviewed carefully before being approved for payment and failure to disclose would cause a post to be rejected. As I understand it, SocialSpark will have automated disclosure within the post itself — it won’t be in the hands of the blogger but automatically inserted.

I also amended my post to clarify the word dishonest to specify intellectual dishonesty. I do not believe Baron’s post is an outright lie, but I do believe that allowing that kind of bias to come in to how he views a site and to make a statement such as the one that he led his post off with is at best, intellectually dishonest.


Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matthew the repentant November 14, 2007 at 4:05 am

Good post, thank you for the reality check. I’ve posted a reply on GNC.

I must say I like the bias though, its one of the things that attracts me to blogs. It adds a humanity to the medium that is engaging. I do agree that consistent repetition of a blogger pet peeve can get old and boring after a while.

2 tish grier November 14, 2007 at 7:10 am

Karoli,

a couple of points:

t is as dishonest to dump on a product because you don’t like its creator as it is to write sponsored content and not disclose that the content is sponsored.

Not “dishonest”–not even unethical. This is the kind of “pissing contests” that go on in the tech world.

Also, don’t confuse what has gone on with PayPerPost and what goes on in tech blogs. Two different worlds, two different sets of rules govering them. The FTC came out with the following recommendation last year contingent on the evolving nature of word-of-mouth marketing and complaints against PPP:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/11/AR2006121101389.html

This is when disclosure became required for word of mouth marketing–and, in part because of complaints against PPP. That came out at last year’s WOMMA conference as there were several ethical breeches last year in the word-of-mouth-marketing world.

Further tech writers don’t have any particular obligation to leave their personal opinions out of their blogs. Their blogs are their own “homes” on the Internet–and there are differences between someone’s personal blog and someone’s business blog. You will find differences in these when you explore them. Furhter, there are folks out there who could argue that you shouldn’t be telling the world about your personal life on you blog (yes, I’ve heard that a time or two.) What we should/shouldn’t do on our blogs is, really, contingent on the use of our blogs. It’s fine, even “ethical” if someone wants to dis someone else–who knows? by dissing smoeone, someone just might be pointing out an ethical breech somewhere (this is not in reference to Mahalo–just in general.) And if there’s some belief that saying something negative is “unethical” will further civility, well, that’s rather naieve and a form of censorship (which many of the “civility” arguments boil down to.)

Civility is not censorship. and dissing someone isn’t “unethical” how it’s done may be childish, but it isn’t “unethical.”

3 Dave Winer November 14, 2007 at 8:33 am

To be clear, I didn’t write the piece, Andrew Baron did. As far as I know he likes Jason. When I criticized Jason’s product, I liked Jason myself, it was only when he attacked me, repeatedly and personally after I was critical of his product, that I came to dislike him personally. But that has absolutely nothing to do with what Andrew wrote. You question his honesty in this piece, that’s something you should be careful about. I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if someone so casually questioned your honesty.

4 karoli November 14, 2007 at 8:55 am

Dave and Tish,

Perhaps it would have been better for me to say it’s intellectually dishonest. The bottom line is that it will mislead a casual reader who isn’t familiar with the backstory.

Tish, I’m familiar with the history on PPP. However, for every person who did not disclose in the beginning there were three who did. It was unfair for all the trashing and piling on to keep on and on, and the ones who suffered were the folks like us who did disclose and held ourselves to a standard of conduct that included disclosure.

Matthew, I have no problem with bias or passion, unless it’s personal, which this has become.

Andrew Baron made Mahalo sound downright evil, and it’s not. He may think Calacanis is evil but that shouldn’t impact Mahalo, which has a lot of good people working really hard.

5 tish grier November 14, 2007 at 10:48 am

Karoli…

I don’t think Andrew made Mahalo out to be “evil”–that’s stretching it into a level of unnecessary hyperbole. He sees problems with it, and he gave Jason ample space to disagree, defend his product, even post links to stories about Mahalo. If Andrew thought it so evil, do you think he would have allowed it? and do you think Jason would have even bothered to take the time it took to leave those comments if that were the case?

Trashing someone also isn’t intellectually dishonest–we all have our opinions on things and sometimes those opinions aren’t necessarily all nice and sweet. There is nothing in any books on intellectual discourse that says we always have to play nice–in fact, sometimes being nice is inherently dishonest. The old saw of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all” leads to a whole host of repressed anger and emotional dishonesty that eventually comes out in other ways….

Not to mention that saying something nice when you don’t believe it, or omitting saying anything when everyone praises something to high heaven is also intellectually dishonest as well as two-faced, emotionally dishonest, misleads people to think something is great when it may be very flawed and a very bad practice overall.

Besides if we all only post nice things, then there would be no discourse. and one part of this whole medium of blogging is about opening up discourse that does not happen in the press– not about always being nice to your buddies or if someone pays you to say nice things…

Which goes on out here, just as much as it goes on in p.r. circles….

As for PPP, please–it’s got its problems, and has from the beginning. And I don’t thing the FTC was unnecessarily “trashing” PPP. When the FTC has something to say about what you’re doing, it’s pretty serious.

6 karoli November 14, 2007 at 11:08 am

Tish,

My reference to ‘painting Mahalo as evil’ came from this statement in Andrew’s post:

I consider this kind of activity to be reckless – just like splogs – for trying to budge way into Google search returns and feed off of SEO. Search works best when you have a great product or idea and can talk about it clearly. When you try to game it, or try to make money for the sake of making money from it, it’s just being a selfish nuisance.

The “splogs” and “selfish nuisance” comments were specifically what I was referring to. If I were one of the people making those pages I would take personal offense to being labeled a splogger.

Opinions, even strongly held opinions, are not the problem here. The problems happen when those opinions really express how one feels about the person behind the product and not the product itself. At that point, they transcend opinion and become attacks.

Saying that Mahalo is similar to a “splog” is really a damaging characterization. I hate splogs. I certainly wouldn’t support one when I spend part of every day getting rid of sploggy trackbacks on this blog and I definitely wouldn’t give it a thumbs-up on this blog.

The discussion in the comments is pretty revealing — links to a bunch of different positive reviews are provided and still, Baron finds a way to ignore them and stand by his original statement. That’s just being intellectually dishonest, in my opinion, and it doesn’t serve readers or information seekers well, because the goal is to push the agenda and not the information.

I want an honest, objective review and that’s all. Not nice things about a flawed product. If it’s flawed, say it’s flawed and say why in the context of the technology, or whatever. Just be fair and not personal, that’s all.

If you look at some of the posts here, I have no problem being passionate, but I temper that passion is tempered by factual support. In this case, it appears as though a gauntlet has been thrown and answered without acknowledgement.

7 tish grier November 14, 2007 at 11:15 am

Karoli…

Andrew’s piece wasn’t meant to be a review of Mahalo. It was a blog entry–and as such not in the business of not being personal.

please–not everyone who writes a blog or blogs about something’s writing a product review. And “people,” i.e. readers of blogs–esp. tech blogs–usually know the difference.

8 karoli November 14, 2007 at 11:38 am

ouch, I should copyedit my own comments better before hitting the publish key.

Tish, Andrew’s post wasn’t the only post I was discussing, but at any rate, he turns his post into a review of sorts when he starts making statements about it not being a service, but rather, a splog, don’t you think?

I value hands-on feedback about sites more than formal PC World/Mag-like reviews. Isn’t that one of the foundations of the “Web 2.0 conversation” values? They carry more weight with me, but they do need to be fair. I shouldn’t have to read with my fight filter on.

Truly, if he’d have prefaced his post by saying “I really cannot stand Jason Calacanis and his self-promoting ways” I would have known how much weight to assign what followed and he could’ve written whatever. Disclose, disclose, disclose.

9 tish grier November 14, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Karoli,

I think you are confusing blogging with a kind of marketing that blogs can be used for–which has happened in spades in the past year (I know–I’m involved in some of it). Blogs can be used for product reviews, but that was never their original intention (which predates the “Web 2.0 conversation notion) and that is not what many people use them for. Your perspective may be colored by when you came into the blogosphere and the emphasis, esp. for many mommybloggers, on making money from product reviews.

Blogs weren’t meant to replace publications like PC world, and the whole idea that they can, or will, is fairly new. Even the idea of using blogs for word of mouth marketing is fairly new in the grander scheme of blogging.

Take a look at Rebecca Blood’s great book “The Weblog Handbook” to understand the genesis of blogging. There’s also a very good chapter in there on ethics in blogging.

And don’t try to draft the new notions and ideas of word of mouth marketing onto all of blogging. Not all blogging is marketing. That notion is the same mistake that’s made when some folks in journalism insist that all blogging is a form of journalism or citizen journalism, which it isn’t. (and that’s a debate that’s gone on for years–and will continue.)

If your blogging is a form of marketing conversation, then that’s fine. But other’s blogs aren’t forms of marketing conversation any more than they are forms of citizen journalism. So don’t expect them to conform to your worldview.

10 karoli November 14, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Hi Tish,

My blogging is, at best, eclectic. I am definitely not a mommyblogger though I certainly do blog about my kids from time to time.

In this discussion, consider me a consumer of information. I work on the web but am not a developer. The best description of me would be a user and consumer of many different sites and services available to me. I’m a critic sometimes, and an edge case at others.

Truth be told, Andrew’s post probably wouldn’t have caught my attention at all, had Dave not Twittered it. But when he did, my first response was to say “wait just a minute — *I* wrote a good review!”

If you want a user’s perspective on something, you’re likely to find it here. For that reason, I consider it important to keep my voice in the conversation honest with who might be reading it, because you just never know who that reader might be.

I don’t view that as marketing as much as just giving someone my honest opinion. I suppose I could do that in any number of social networks, but I like having my place here.

I expect that Mr.Baron feels the same way, except that he enjoys a higher profile around this neck of the woods by virtue of his Rocketboom work, which in turns weights what he writes for that down-the-road mystery reader who might pick up what he blogged when they searched on the terms Mahalo and review. If they searched.

Anyway, this has been a good conversation, too. I think until Google figures out which blogs are marketing conversations and which are just out-loud ruminations and assigns weight accordingly, it’s probably worth having it.

11 tish grier November 14, 2007 at 3:24 pm

Hey…all conversations are worth having…and nothing wrong when people agree to disagree :-)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: