With the Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") pondering adapting its archaic advertising regulations to cover blogs, I chanced upon some blatant commercial content posing as a blog post on one my favorite sites, Boing Boing.
Last Thursday, it promoted its participation in a lame branding campaign from Comcast. Comcast is one of its sponsors, which was duly noted at the start of the first sentence. The short post went on to shamelessly flack something that would never have gotten onto the site otherwise (the image even takes you to the Comcast promotion). In fact, the Comcast campaign is so dumb and inert that it might have been negatively covered.
Did Boing Boing sell out? Naw. This is no different from what mainstream media features reporters have been doing for years. Ditto for editorial writers.
Sure, reporters write about things that have some cachet or hint of relevance, but the primary criteria for picking stories has always been personal predilections, and who took the news person out to the best lunch. Anybody who has pitched a story to a reporter knows this, and yet there's never been a requirement for disclosure of either 1) the reporter's subjective biases, and/or 2) who paid for the lunch (or whatever quid pro quo might have yielded the story).
We've also learned to be critical readers, right? Feature stories are, well, feature stories, not news fact, and a restaurant review or story on some new product or fad isn't the same thing as a performance or satisfaction guarantee.
How is blogging any different? I think the implicit argument is that we assign more credibility and authority to blogs...almost since we couldn't trust mainstream media any less, so we give more credence to the blather of anybody who has enough initiative to post.
But the comments following Boing Boing's shill for Comcast reveal otherwise: everybody knows that the post is commercial speak (again, the site revealed it). Most of them didn't like it. Those that defended the post used the argument that defends most crappy behaviors in life (variations of the "it's not personal, it's just business, so it's OK" rationale). I'm sure that Boing Boing looks at the negativity arising from the placement actually good for the blog (it will deliver more eyeballs, thus raising the ad value, just like mainstream media).
So, whether declared or not, however, I'm not sure that we need conversation on blogs regulated at all. The primary reason is that we've never bothered to do it to mainstream media. But there are at least three qualities of blogging that make regulation unnecessary:
- Bloggers aren't experts at anything except opinion: I know bloggers. I've worked with bloggers. And bloggers aren't reporters, industry experts, or unrecognized geniuses (present company included). The vast majority are color commentators on life, and as such are responsible for little original content save their own personal spin on things they choose to talk about.
- Bloggers can be shills, just like everyone else: Just like nobody would have ever held actress Rula Lenska accountable if VO5 hair spray didn't hold, neither should we care about bloggers being right or wrong. When they take sponsorship money, they're the Internet corollary of celebrity spokesmodels; when there's no quid pro quo, they're sharing truly biased, personal opinions (see point above). Everybody knows it.
- Bloggers are mostly concerned with promoting themselves: Blogging is a style business first, followed closely by substance; as such, it has as much in common with poetry slams as it does with reporting. It's simply not commercial conversation, and it's not news, either. It's blogging, and holding it to either standard misses the point.
That point is the really interesting debate: how do we define things like "truth" or "authenticity" in the context of Internet conversation?
As mainstream news outlets wither, it seems as though they're being replaced by blogs (among other sources). Even as we know they're not the same thing as vetted reporting of fact (whether explicitly or implicitly), we pay attention to them and, in doing so, can't help but be influenced by them. Sometimes we choose to believe them, too, even though we can't necessarily explain why.
Further, the social web gives us group-reviews and de facto endorsements of products and services...so is that commercial content or news, or something between the two?
Clearly, this is a debate that's far beyond the regulatory reach of the FTC.
Further, while I can't tell you how we should figure it out, I can tell you one thing: like the traditional definition of pornography -- "I can't explain it, but I know it when I see it" -- Boing Boing has lost any claim to authenticity or truth-telling I may have once bestowed upon it.