Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday not-so-Funday: The Ethics of Blogging

I want to get serious on what is often a Friday Funday.  Over the last week or so, I've found myself thinking a lot about ethics and integrity.  Many professions, including the law, have some kind of code of moral or ethical conduct that its members are expected to uphold.  Lawyers, for example, are bound by rules of professional conduct (see, e.g., the model rules of professional conduct). 

However, no such unified standard exists for bloggers.  We're all out here on our own in the wild wild west of the WWW with only our personal values to keep us afloat.  So how do we respond to some of the ethical quandries inherent in the hobby?

I.  Link Buyouts

Last week, I read an article on Gawker that sat badly with me.  The title of the article caught my eye right away:  "The Shady Marketing Scheme That's Buying Off Your Favorite Bloggers."  Hamilton Nolan, the author of the article, was approached by a marketing agency offering him $175 to include a link to a client in an upcoming post for Gawker.  The marketer wrote:

What we suggest (as long as you think it won't get you into any trouble — we don't want anything that isn't beneficial for both parties) is trying to drop a link in the article, and seeing if the editor mentions it. If he does, remove the link, and we'll go our separate ways. If he doesn't, we'll pay you handsomely, and we can continue if you want to. We don't do this for every article, and there is a certain "under the radar" element to it, so you don't want to over do it.

After posting this article on my facebook profile, my friend Michelle called this practice a "link buyout" and said she thinks it's somewhat of a fact of life on larger blogs. 

The disturbing aspect of the link buyout, to both Nolan and to me, is the destruction of "the fundamental...sanctity of honest writing in exchange for money."  I think about the feeling I get when I stumble upon a "special advertising section" in a magazine that's made to look like it's a legitimate article in the periodical.  I'll sometimes read part of those pieces and develop some kind of unsettling feeling---Why do I feel like someone is trying to sell me something?  It's somewhat of a relief when my eyes scan the borders of the page where the advertisement is disclosed.  Ah, I knew something felt off.

This all felt very distant to me until a few days ago, when I received my own offer for a link buyout.

From a nose surgery website.

Now, I'm not sure how you found your way to my blog (Welcome!  Glad you're here!), but "jewish nose" is the third most-popular search result leading people to my site.  It only ranks after "stuff jewish girls like" and "jewish girls."  You may remember that I wrote a post about the virtues of non-standardized noses and exploring the very ugly attitude plastic surgeons have taken to fixing "imperfect" noses.  When I google "jewish nose," that blog entry is the third link that appears in my results.  Same when I google "jewish nose plastic surgery" (no quotes).  I'm not sure if that ranking has to do with my browser's cache or not, but regardless, I know that post still gets a lot of hits per month.

Naturally, someone involved with nose surgery would want to get a foot in that door.  The terms of this offer seemed similar to those Nolan described---I was offered a sum of money (less than $175, but still sizable) to "write a short post about nose surgery" and link to the client.

If I am getting this kind of offer, I would be shocked if it hasn't already happened to many other bloggers out there---probably a good chunk of the bloggers I read and enjoy.

And here's the thing:  I don't think stuff like this is necessarily bad.  That chunk of money would have been used to run a great giveaway on the blog.  If I could have had the freedom to post the link in the type of article I wanted to write (i.e., this one you're reading right now), and If I could have disclosed the fact that the link was paid, I'm not convinced it would have been a breach of personal integrity to accept the offer.

But I don't think that's the type of post this marketer wanted.  I think what she wanted was a post completely out-of-line with my personal opinions and a link to a nose surgery website casually slipped in without a word as though I endorsed the idea.  In exchange for---what?  For some cash?

So, I don't know.  I don't know a lot of things.  Is it wrong to accept money from a client whose work you oppose more often than not if you can openly discuss your disagreement and disclose the fact that they've paid you to talk about them?  Where does the breach of integrity lie?  Is it in the type of sponsor?  The nondisclosure of the payment?  Or is it a breach to accept money regardless of the content of your writing?

II.  Giveaways

Another type of ethical integrity question most bloggers seem to face involves giveaways.  You may have noticed that I'm currently running what I think is a great giveaway with a company called Sheyna.  I'm not being paid to run this giveaway---Sheyna's $30 gift card will go directly to the winner of the random selection.  However, I had never heard of Sheyna before they contacted me about running a giveaway on my blog.  What is the blogger's duty to the reader in this situation? 

I mean, giveaways are fun.  People like getting stuff for free, and I like my readers to be happy, so I will rarely say "no" to an offer to run one.  I also recognize that giveaways, in some ways, encourage readers to shop at a website through either explicit or implicit endorsement.  So it seems clear to me that there is some duty of care in offering blog giveaways. 

As I saw it, my duty was to check into the legitimacy of the company, explore their type of product, and consider whether a customer trying their product for the first time would have reasonable options if they were dissatisfied with it.  After assuring myself that Sheyna was a real company with positive reviews, with what seemed to be nice people working there, and that they have a free two-way shipping policy with a seemingly accommodating return policy, I arrived at the conclusion that I would feel comfortable buying their product myself (knowing that I could send it back if it turned out to be something I didn't like).  Only after arriving at this conclusion did I agree to work with Sheyna on this giveaway (they've been great).

Was that enough?  Or should one refuse to run such giveaways without having personally tried the products in question?  What does the reader expect?

EDIT: Bizarrely, a little more than a week after pondering the ethics of running giveaways in this post and discussing the steps I took to ensure that Sheyna was a solid company worthy of our time (and hey, even Oprah wrote about them), they have decided to end the company! They've posted a message on their website that they will be refunding all orders that have not yet been processed. If you placed an order with Sheyna and have any difficulty either getting your product or getting your refund, please let me know. I don't expect that anyone will have problems, but please still keep me in the loop.

III.  Shopping and Wearing

In the wake of the Anthroholic scandal, there was quite a bit of talk in the blogosphere about whether bloggers have a duty to disclose their financial situation and shopping budgets, given the fact that their consumerism can have a very negative impact on some readers who may have a different budget or may be struggling with overshopping. 

You may notice that posts about my large sale hauls have almost completely disappeared since September.  Frankly, I just haven't been sure where these posts should fit in anymore, or whether they should continue.  The idea that sharing my shopping (or, sometimes, overshopping) could be driving others to feel unhappy with themselves or disgusted with what appears to be reckless spending or triggered to shop compulsively makes me feel terrible.  I want to post my most recent sale haul, but it's extremely large and I feel slowed by the weight of some unnamed, undescribed responsibility that I can't quite pinpoint.  Where I thought I was just sharing some fun purchases that I may or may not keep, perhaps I didn't realize that I was implicitly endorsing the idea of spending huge amounts of money or buying lots of new clothes all the time.

This ties in with an article about the superfluity of "c/o"s in fashion blogging (discovered via "The Snarky Wife"'s post on GOMI).  At what point has a blogger crossed the line from indulging in perks or endorsing a product that she does actually like to becoming an empty shill for any any brand that will send her something?

Sorry for the brain dump.  These thoughts have been percolating since reading that Gawker article, and the email from the nose surgery marketing woman made me question what our responsibilities are here in the wild wild west of the WWW.  I know I have had conversations with some readers to this effect, as well.

And let me emphasize, once again, that I would never have written a pro-nose surgery post while linking to that website.  That line, at least to me, is very clear. 

...But whether I could have included their link in a post like this, while disclosing that I was paid to put it there, with the intention of using the money to run a giveaway for readers---that line, maybe less so.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  What ethical standards do you expect from the bloggers you read?  (I'm sure this goes without saying, but Please keep your comments respectful.)

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