On Ethics and Blogging – The Imagined Influence of Bloggers

On Blogging

Hearing the word “blog” makes me vomit just a little in the back of my mouth.

Having real people in the meat world comment to me about my “blog” leaves me feeling just a little embarrassed and uneasy: There’s just something about the pompous self-importance and imagined sense of influence of the whole “blogosphere”, coupled with the cacophony of useless chatter coming from some dubious participants, that makes it a group that I really don’t feel entirely comfortable being associated with.

Many blogs (not including yours, of course) feature predominately insipid ramblings, with space-filling content of limited or no informational value. Many of their authors have no particular skill or unique message in the realm that they focus on.

Bloggers themselves often subscribe to hundreds of blogs just to have content to blog about (I’d wager that RSS readers are overwhelmingly used by RSS publishers…), in a giant circular linkfest, all saying the same things in unison. The more accessible the source, the easier it is to “contribute” by making some ancillary comment about how the shed should have a red stripe instead of a blue stripe, the more subscribers, the more references.

Don’t think I’m excluding this very blog from these criticisms. I’m very critical of my own works.

Among the “A-list” bloggers, many are the Paris Hiltons of the technology world — readers (a fanbase primarily consisting of B…Z-list bloggers, as mentioned earlier. Among the general population, especially people and groups of influence, even the largest bloggers have zero influence or namespace) follow them, and link to them, and talk about them…because people follow them, link to them, and talk about them.

People anxiously watch their moves because they don’t want to miss anything that “everyone else” is watching. It really is extraordinary.

I’ve never been discrete about my feelings of this topic: I started this blog by indicating my contempt for blogs in general, commenting that I viewed this more as a mature content management system. It was a halfway point between formal writing and informal writing, where I could “own” my content, easily posting and altering information while making it available for search engines (and perhaps playing the system a bit to ensure that I maintain and gain search engine credibility, which I’ve gained in buckets).

I don’t use an RSS reader, and from that obviously I don’t subscribe to any blogs.

Now and then I do browse around some of the few blogs that feature occasionally insightful or interesting or thought-provoking content, or from authors who have inside information (e.g. developers inside a corporation whose software or tools I depend upon, sharing a unique perspective that can be valuable for me), and often traipse back through the history a bit, gaining knowledge and perspective, just as I did before they were called blogs and were just papers and articles that
people posted online.

Often these blog-diving journeys begin when one of their posts make it atop the meme or news sites. I got linked on Slashdot yesterday, and of the ten thousand or so visitors referred over, a very large percentage actually felt the desire to go browsing through historical entries, which is something that always makes me feel that I’ve “succeeded” in my quest a bit.

My opinions on the topic of blogs have hardly endeared me into the blogging community. Even those who fully agree with me are naturally wary of linking this way, lest they play into exactly what I criticize. I don’t have a “blog roll”, and when I do link to other blogs, which is infrequent, I usually tag it with a rel=nofollow just to be sure to indicate that I’m not giving any link love, and I’m certainly not looking for cheap reciprocity. If my goal was inbound links from other bloggers —
the ultimate goal of many bloggers — this would be the absolutely worst way to achieve it.

I am not a blogger’s blogger.

All of this isn’t to say that blogs — even those dedicated to documenting the most banal of everyday events — don’t have a “right” to exist, or even a very useful purpose. The more information on the net the better, and everyone has every right, ability, and encouragement to post anything and everything
online. There are a lot of extraordinary blogs out there, amongst the noise.

The beauty of the internet is that if you don’t want to read it, no one is forcing you to. Even if I don’t like some blogs, I have no position or right or even moral opening to demand that the person cease its production.

Yet this whole “industry” needs a serious kick in the nads, and a serious correction of perspective. 10,000 readers would give one a significant position in the blogosphere, yet it’s less readers than the two-bit journalist whiling away their career writing for the local newspaper in the tiny industrial town I grew
up in gets every single day.

All of that was initiated by some of the grandiose pro-blog comments I came across while reading about the incident described in the next section, and some of the anti-blog commentary that resulted (yes, if you read the above with an open mind you will discover that it actually exonerates blogs from some of the criticism they’ve received).

On Ethics

A bit of a controversy kicked up recently over Microsoft (or its agents) giving out freebie high-end laptops with “no strings attached” to a variety of bloggers (some of whom have been identified, others not).

They emailed some bloggers, covering the gamut of popularity, informing them that they can receive a spanking new $2300USD+ laptop, pre-loaded with Windows Vista. After they were done “reviewing” it — wink wink — they could choose to return it, give it away, or keep it (there were variations of the email —
apparently they haven’t mastered mail-merge technology — one implying that the recipient could “borrow” it indefinitely, which is a bit of tax weaseling given that legally the sender was required to log the recipient’s tax information of this valuable, taxable gift, and the receiver is to pay the appropriate taxes).

Several of the recipients of this Laptop Loot immediately posted about their great fortune, coming clean about the source, but claiming that somehow they were immune to the long proven and entrenched law of reciprocity. Their supposed objectivity was completely unswayed, we were told.

Other recipients were quiet about the whole affair, or worse made posts indicating that they just “traded-in” for the spanky new laptop. Another claimed that it came from a different source than actuality (just got a laptop from Microsoft and AMD Say it came courtesy of Acer!)

Critics and pundits have taken up arms on both sides.

Defenders of the bloggers have almost universally fallen to the defense that those who throw stones are just jealous, which is a convenient, albeit very juvenile, retort to virtually any criticism. The alternate defense being that everyone is unethical in every industry, so what’s the problem It’s a race to the bottom, baby, so grab whatever you can en route!

Critics have largely exaggerated the whole affair, declaring that the laptop recipients are worse than Hitler. Or something like
that.

Few (if any) of the thus identified recipients have any hardware review credibility or experience worth noting, so their perception of the laptop itself is laughably useless (already we’ve seen some inane, content-free “reviews” appearing), at most restricted to valuable comments like “sure is pretty” or “seems fast”. To counter
this, some recipients have claimed that the laptop was justified because it allows them to review Vista without all of the troubleand difficulty of actually installing the operating system (or going through the Herculean effort of returning the supposed review unit), clearly indicating their experience level (low to none), not to mention their complete lack of dedication in exerting any effort at all in the pursuit of bringing useful content to their readers. If it isn’t as easy as loading their RSS reader and punching in some opinions — sort of like this entry! — then they can’t be bothered.

Deliver it on a platter, please.

Why do people read these people again I’ve had various builds of Vista, and now the gold version, in virtual machines, and on an actual PC, for a good amount of time — and I’m hardly interested in sitting on the razor edge of Microsoft technology, and surely was long beaten to the punch by pro-Microsoft cheerleaders — as have many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people who actually know what they’re doing, and who aren’t crippled with laziness. I have no inside
track at Microsoft — I’m quite antagonistic about them — yet somehow I manage.

It runs very well, with all features enabled, on the middle to low-end PC I have it on, eliminating any (counterproductive) claim that only a high-end laptop could suffice.

All in all the whole thing is a lesson in how easily people can be bought, and how cynical one has to be about the opinions they find (and perhaps how meaningless those opinions really are), even among the pure and unadulterated blogging community (which, we are told, is supposed to be a superior alternative to the corrupt mainstream media). It is human nature to reciprocate favours, such as a $2300 laptop, but worse still is the inevitable invisible hand effect: If you want to keep this good stuff coming, you know what to do. Bring on the love, baby!

More disturbing is the entirely corrupt sense of ethics espoused by many of their supporters.

Nonetheless, I don’t blame Microsoft. They’re hardly alone in doing something like this (and like a mistress and a strayed husband — why blame the mistress when she isn’t the one that’s married Why blame Microsoft when they’re not the one trying to present an impartial, objective opinion Microsoft is just trying to sell a product.)

There’s an extraordinarily good essay on this topic from a former magazine
writer, sharing many parallels with the current situation. He details how the automotive industry used the same sort of coercion to get them to convince you that the new car is a lifestyle instead of just 4 wheels and an engine. He describes the soul-selling corruption that he witnessed among his peers, at the behest of Volvo (although it was hardly the only guilty company). The essay does nothing to sour my opinion of Volvo — the Microsoft in that case — but it does make me feel very negatively towards the supposed reviewers who beg their readers’ trust. Who are empowered only by their readers’ trust (otherwise Volvo wouldn’t have wasted the money buying their voices).

I originally found that link from the superb The Submarine essay by Paul Graham.

I also highly recommend the superb book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I was originally hooked onto that book by Spolsky several years back, and found it extraordinarily insightful about some of the techniques “compliance practitioners” use to get people (such as low level bloggers) to do their bidding.

On Bias

No one is unbiased. Even something like Visual Studio committing hari kari, taking some work out with it, can make me anti-Microsoft in completely unrelated matters for a period, often unfairly. On the flip side, if their tools help me achieve a particular result with gusto, I might be prone to suddenly thinking the brown Zune with “squirt” technology looks like a mighty nice MP3 player.

This is the case with all of us. We’re human.

I’ve written about bias and blogs before, so I won’t retread all of that.

One thing that I marvel at, however, is seeing that some of the lucky laptop recipients have explained that they can’t be bought by Microsoft, because they I(HEART)Microsoft already: Their position is already so pro-Microsoft they couldn’t possibly be swayed further. They’re gonna love it anyways!

Again, I have to ask: Who reads the postings of that sort of person? I’m deadly serious. Why would you read the opinion of someone who would declare (explicitly or implicitly) such a confused outlook on reality I share the same feeling about those who can’t possibly see any good in anything Microsoft does (or big oil, or Republicans, or the UN, or whatever).

If you are in technology and you think this is teams that you are playing for (e.g. Linux or Microsoft or Apple), and you don’t directly work for and get paid by one of the aforementioned teams, then you’ve taken a seriously wrong path somewhere. If you are getting paid, then you’d better be wearing a “Hi, my name is {$NAME} and I work for {$CORPORATE_INTEREST}” nametag, and you’d better realize how entirely impossible it is for you to be any more than superficially unbiased. And no, softball criticisms aren’t going to fool us into thinking otherwise.

If you aren’t getting paid, then you should NEVER declare your fealty to a technology camp, or fool yourself into thinking that you have to pick. You don’t. Don’t do yourself, your employer, your clients, and your users a tremendous disservice by myopically aligning yourself with interests that don’t necessarily correlate with your own.