Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Giving bloggers a bad name

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Every once in a while something happens that gets bloggers and their loyal readers all riled up. It is during these times when one feels the energy pulsate through the whole blogosphere as everyone weighs in with his or her own “take” on the burning issue of the day. Occurrences like these have become rare lately—the blogosphere has been relatively calm and boring for quite sometime—which probably explains the relatively high level of attention being given the particular issue at hand.

The current controversy revolves around allegations of unethical practices of a certain blogger presumably in cahoots with a certain Public Relations firm.

What triggered the whole brouhaha was an article written by Margaux Salcedo (who is also a blogger and a media personality in addition to being spokesperson of former President Joseph Estrada) entitled “Please Don’t Give Blogging a Bad Name” published in the January 23 edition of the Sunday Magazine of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Salcedo alleged in her article that a restaurateur friend of hers (whom she hid under a fictitious name) was offered by a public relations firm (which she also did not identify) word-of-mouth generation through the magic of “social media.” The PR firm quoted a rather steep monthly fee to avail of the services of some bloggers who were supposed to write glowing reviews about the restaurant on a regular basis. Salcedo’s restaurateur friend declined. Thereupon, Big Bad Blogger (supposedly a popular food blogger) dined at the restaurant, took pictures of the food, and wrote a glowing review in his or her blog. The PR firm once again offered its services, mentioning that Big Bad Blogger is in its roster of paid hacks. Salcedo’s restaurateur friend declined yet again. A few months after, restaurateur opens another restaurant, Big Bad Blogger comes to dine, takes pictures, and then writes a scathing review.

Salcedo did not categorically conclude that Big Bad Blogger and the PR firm were partners in crime but unraveled enough rope to hang both in the bar of public opinion. The article hinted very strongly that the scathing review of the restaurant was triggered by the restaurateur’s refusal to give grease money to the PR firm and Big Bad Blogger.

By not identifying both the blogger and PR firm, Salcedo unwittingly stoked the controversy further by getting most everyone involved in some kind of a guessing game. This twist unfortunately muddled the issues as some people starting pointing sticky fingers at some bloggers. In many blogs, the focus of the discussion was on personalities rather than on the specific allegations or their implications.

Not that the identities of the people involved are unimportant; it’s just that the issue of the alleged unethical practices and the matter of who committed these can be tackled independently of each other. Sadly, it’s often difficult for many to dissociate personalities from issues, substance from form, in our country.

I’ve been there many times. As a (former) blogger and as a columnist of this newspaper (referred to as part of mainstream media by many) I’ve often been at the receiving end of such myopia. There were a number of times when some people would insist on reading more into what I would write—very often biases and motives that people insisted were part of my supposed political leanings. The fact that I didn’t have political leanings was irrelevant to them.

I also think that by withholding the identities of Big Bad Blogger and the PR firm in question, Salcedo may have done her advocacy a disservice. Think how much more productive the discussion would have been if the issues were focused solely on the alleged unethical practices. But like I said, that should not deflect from a more enlightened discussion of the real issues at hand. There is something we can all learn from everyone—including people who chose to remain anonymous when leaving commentaries in blogs or in the mainstream media.

The important issue at hand is whether or not the allegations of unethical practices among bloggers are true and if they are, how rampant or prevalent these practices are today. Consequently, the discussion should focus on what can be done to curb these practices.

It would be futile to attempt a discussion on who should be blamed for such unethical practices. The truism “there are no tyrants where there are no slaves” comes to mind. Unethical practices thrive if there are people who pay for these. Conversely, people might feel compelled to pay off when the pressure to do so becomes intense such as when scathing attacks on their business continues relentlessly.

Does this mean that things should be left as they are? Of course not! Salcedo is right, errant bloggers should not be allowed to give the whole blogging phenomenon a bad rap.

This business of “paying off” bloggers has been noted for quite sometime now. As a former blogger (my blog is still up, but I haven’t been blogging for many months now) I have been “invited” many times to avail of certain services offered by certain business establishments. I’ve been sent tickets to certain shows and events, gift certificates to certain restaurants and spas, offered all kinds of freebies and samples of certain products and services. I’ve refused all of them for many reasons. First, I barely have time to attend to all these invitations what with having a full time job, a teaching load, a column to write, and a number of professional organizations to attend to in addition to running a household of teenagers. But more importantly, I feel uncomfortable accepting favors or gifts when I know I cannot reciprocate accordingly. I can claim to take the high ground and claim to be made of sterner moral stuff but I also know that I can grant favors to friends if they ask nicely or if I believe in their cause.

There are bloggers who monetize their blogs and I know quite a number who try to live off the income from their blogs. This is a tall order and unless one has the stature, the talent, the expertise, and the marketing savvy, is almost impossible to achieve. I suspect that this is one reason why some bloggers become creative in the area of funds generation. My advice to bloggers is to not lose their day jobs if they don’t intend to lose their integrity.

There are good and bad bloggers just as there are paid hacks in mainstream media, columnists included. I know that the same unethical practices area also present in mainstream media. The difference is that bloggers are supposed to be more idealistic and are supposed to champion more ethical ways of doing things. Unlike traditional media, it doesn’t cost as much to publish a blog and bloggers are therefore supposed to guard their integrity and credibility fiercely. When one comes down to it, credibility is any blogger’s main selling point.

Is it time to regulate the blogosphere? Heavens, no. But it is important for bloggers to keep talking about issues like these in order to come up with some norms and benchmarks. At a certain point, even bloggers would have to accept that a consensus on what is acceptable and what is not is necessary.

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