Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag, which generally teeters just beyond the edge of credible reporting, surprisingly nailed a serious story today. As serious as blogging gets, at least.
“Microsoft pays star writers to recite slogan,” declared Nick Denton, and the names called out are hardly bit players in the blogosphere. Mike Arrington of TechCrunch. Om Malik of GigaOm. Matt Marshall of VentureBeat.
The Valleywag piece, not surprisingly, is scarce on details, and it’s not clear whether the participating bloggers were paid or what they were expected to do for Microsoft… apart from penning essays answering the question, “When did you know your business was people ready?“
But the appearance of impropriety was enough to set off alarm bells. Dave Winer was instantly curious. CNET jumped on the story. And within hours, one of the participating bloggers balked. In announcing his withdrawal from the campaign, Om Malik effectively confirmed Valleywag’s report. Interestingly, although he ostensibly apologizes “without making excuses,” he offers this slippery nugget:
“Conversational marketing is a developing format, and clearly the rules are not fully defined.”
Right. “Conversational marketing” ain’t payola, just like “concentric retail” ain’t MLM. If the rules are so fuzzy, why backpedal almost instantly?
I read many of these blogs. (I was especially sad to see Richard MacManus of Read/WriteWeb on the list, too.) A lot of people read them. We read them because these bloggers know their stuff, and because we trust them. And to a large extent, they thrive on that trust. But now I’m wondering if that trust was misplaced.
To be fair, from what I can tell, none of the participating bloggers inserted their “People Ready” pitches into their blogs. They didn’t pass off an ad as editorial content in their respective venues, in other words… something that would have most certainly been beyond the pale. But a blogger being paid to submit a testimonial for a Microsoft campaign is no less problematic than a journalist cashing in by appearing in a television commercial. Dan Rather would catch hell for shilling Diet Coke, even if he was just doing it “on the side.”
Your credibility is at stake wherever your name appears.
With the legitimacy and ethics of bloggers under increasing attack, it’s disappointing to see some of the web’s shining beacons of “citizen media” sucked into something like this. And the irony for some is incredible.
In his People Ready blurb, Marshall waxes about learning the “craft of journalism.” Guess he skipped Journalism 101.
Om Malik was one of the bloggers who received a Ferrari laptop from Microsoft last December, and said he’d send it back as a result of the outcry over bloggers being “bought” with shiny toys. (Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever reading that he actually did return the thing.)
And Arrington has been one of the most prominent critics of PayPerPost, which pays bloggers to write about sponsors. In one of his more memorable anti-PayPerPost screeds, he calls the trend a “virus,” and calls attention to the “issue of blogger disclosure of product shilling.” He calls PayPerPost’s efforts “a terrible development for the blogsphere and public trust.”
When stay-at-home moms write about fantasy football websites, its a travesty of ethics. But when A-list bloggers sell some words to Microsoft, it’s “conversational marketing.”
Give me a break.