Thursday, March 21, 2013

I've been deleted! (a.k.a., a word novella on strict commenting policies, sponsored posts, disclosures, and discourse)

(Apologies in advance for writing you a novel.  tl;dr -- )


"Wait a minute, my comment was there a minute ago..."

I refreshed the blog post I'd commented on a few moments before over at A Practical Wedding ("APW").  Sure enough, the comment I'd posted --- after thoughtfully wording my criticism in such a way as to be reasonable but still true to my thoughts --- had vanished.

(I'm not married, nor am I engaged, but it will be my five-year anniversary with my boyfriend on Sunday and without getting into too many details about conversations occurring in my private life I will admit to reading APW and sometimes looking at sparkly things or white things, because I am a gender-conforming, red-blooded woman over here.)

So, first I'm going to tell you what happened to me on this one specific blog (APW), and then I'm going to tell you why I think this stuff matters in a broader sense.

Some background:  The post I commented on was about a new initiative by one of APW's sponsors, called "Turtle Love Company" (TLC).  TLC sells vintage and vintage-y engagement rings, along with other types of jewelry.  They seem to be a big sponsor of APW as I see TLC-sponsored posts on the website frequently.  The new initiative was called a "Dynamic Pricing Experiment," in which TLC would start listing rings at their appraised value, and then lower the price if the ring did not sell.

Now, if you couldn't tell from the name and content of this blog, I love sales.  I am all about sales.  I know a sale when I see one.  In fact, sometimes I FEEL a sale BEFORE I see one, just getting random tinglings of my Jewish Girl-sense when I am in the proximity of a sale.

And this "Dynamic Pricing Experiment" thingamajigger sounded a lot like a sale.  Exactly like a sale.  Your standard, run-of-the-mill sale.  The complicated academic name struck me as inauthentic.  So I left these comments, which were deleted a few minutes after the most recent one:


I'd heard that the moderators at APW were sometimes trigger-happy when it came to removing perceived "negative" comments, but I never imagined that  a comment I perceived to be constructive, albeit not heaping with praise, would be deleted.  I truly thought these comments were respectful and posted with only good intentions.  After all, the original TLC post said:
"then don’t forget to come back here and tell Adrianne what you think! (I’m hoping your feedback will be more helpful than my ZOMGTHISISAMAZINGILOVESALES.)"
I mean, surely my comment counts as "feedback . . . more helpful than ZOMGTHISISAMAZINGILOVESALES," right?  So why didn't the APW moderators think so?

I left another comment asking why my comment got deleted, to which Meg (the creator of APW) commented, "If you have questions about our comment policy, feel free to email us directly.  We moderate comments based on tone."  I responded that my tone was intended to be thoughtful, albeit critical and....yep, the whole thread with Meg got deleted, too.

So I went over to APW's commenting policy and read it, and you know what I found that disturbed me greatly?
"Our sponsored and partner posts are paid content from a business we’ve consciously chosen to work with. Out of respect to the business that paid for a particular post, we reserve the right to remove comments that we don’t feel are in their best interest. These sponsors and partners are how we are able to stay online. If you want to ask us about our choice to work with someone, please send us an emailAPW’s mission is to promote discussion on weddings and marriage, not on the business model that allows us to facilitate those conversations." (emphasis added)
WOAH.  As far as I can tell, "best interest" can have a very broad definition, can't it?  Is a potential customer's post that the name chosen to describe a "sale" not in the "best interest" of a sponsored company? Is the post of an unsatisfied customer that the merchandise she purchased was shoddy, not as advertised, or the like not in the "best interest" of the sponsor?  Where does the interest of the consumer fit into all of this?  As a consumer, I certainly would like to know if, when reading a post written by or for a sponsored company, the comments section is being whitewashed to feature only positive commentary, even if negative commentary exists.

I'd like to say that as far as TLC is concerned, I'm impressed with the response I've received from the company about this thus far.  (I've never purchased anything from them, but theoretically one day I may ptoo ptoo.)  I emailed Adrianne (a former lawyer, like me), the head of TLC to voice my concerns.  I received very thoughtful and respectful emails from her in response, explaining a bit more about the  "dynamic pricing experiment" thing (which, FYI, still sounds like a "sale" but I could be missing a subtlety) and also noting that that she did not have control over comments being deleted and the company does welcome feedback.  It's not always easy to hear criticism so I give Adrianne credit for her reaction here.

But I do think this issue goes beyond TLC and even beyond APW.  (I've taken a day to meditate on this and think it over, so in case you couldn't tell, you are getting a much different post today than you would have gotten if I'd posted after my negative interaction with Meg yesterday.)

1.  As consumers on the internet, I think it's important that we make ourselves aware of the way in which sponsored posts and reviews are presented on the websites we frequent.  Had I not read the commenting policy on APW, for example, I might not have realized that the APW moderators had such broad criteria for deleting comments on sponsored posts.  Now that I do know, I realize I cannot rely on any of the positive feedback generated about vendors in APW posts, since I have no idea how much negative feedback is being deleted.  I would be shocked if APW is the only website "protecting" their sponsors in this way.  While I would love to place all blame on the blog with restrictive commenting policies, we maintain responsibility as consumers to make informed purchases.  What I didn't fully realize until yesterday is that part of this process of informing ourselves must also include learning about the ways in which a given blog might misrepresent the public opinion of one of its sponsors.

(source)

2.  As bloggers or publishers on the internet, we have an ethical responsibility to present as unbiased a view of "sponsored" material as possible.  I blame no blogger for wanting to feature sponsored material on her website, but with the power to promote comes the responsibility to promote responsibly.  We saw the dangers of comment over-moderation when the Anthroholic scam broke, years after it might have broken otherwise had it not been for the deletion of negative comments about Anthroholic on various Anthropologie-centric blogs, largely on her own.  For example, we have been engaging in a discussion on this blog about a blogger's responsibility in disclosing affiliate links.  My IRL-friend Michelle (who blogs herself over here) deals with FTC disclosures as part of her job and pointed out that disclosure requirements have become much more stringent this year, indicating that the FTC expects bloggers to be up-front about the way they handle sponsored content.  Disclosure of affiliate links is a separate but related issue, and I bring it up to indicate both that it's an important area for us bloggers to learn about, and that even the government has recognized the influence bloggers can have over the marketplace.  Again, with great power comes great responsibility.


FWIW, even beyond government requirements, I truly believe we have a responsibility to be honest people. (Bias alert:  I have a deeply seeded expectation that decent human beings be honest with each other.  I was the type of kid who, in elementary school, skipped a question on a quiz if I accidentally saw someone else's answer to that question, even if I knew the answer myself.)  I'm sure you've noticed that I run some sponsored content on this blog --- almost entirely, if not entirely, reviews of products I have had a chance to test --- (and I've got another sponsored post coming up in the next week), but I want to make clear that I never delete comments on these (or any) type of posts and I encourage discussion in the comments sections of my posts, even if I think that discussion is unreasonable or if I disagree with it.  I have only ever deleted a small handful of comments in the years I have been writing this blog, and those comments were either explicitly racist, violent, or sexual [as in, sexually invasive/explicit/violent] comments.  And also spam.  I delete spam.

3.  As companies sponsoring blogs, you have the power to demand that the bloggers you sponsor maintain standards for public discourse and disclosures that you can respect.  As I mentioned in #1 above, it does you no favors as a company if the blog you pay to run posts about your services deletes any potentially negative commentary as a matter of policy.  Not only does it alienate potentially well-meaning commenters (like me), but it also undermines public trust in you as a company and as a selector of blogging partners.  I know that I, for one, will look at sponsored content on websites like APW differently now that I know that anything not in the "best interest" of the sponsor will be promptly wiped away, and I know that I will be exploring the commenting/sponsorship policies of other blogs I read to make sure I know who I need to be wary of.  As a company, your advertising dollars have power.  When it comes to disclosures and open discourse on the internet and other forms of social media, your interests are aligned with consumers and blog readers:  it is in the "best interest" of both of you (assuming you are a good company with a good product) and readers that the reader/consumer has accurate information.  Use your advertising dollars to demand that the blogs you sponsor uphold higher standards of discourse and disclosure.  If they won't, don't risk your brand's reputation on someone else's lack of integrity.

Okay, novel over.  Have you ever had a comment of yours deleted before?  Ever had a negative experience after paying for services you learned about in a sponsored post?  I'd love to hear your thoughts --- all of them.  Really.  (Just not the violent, racist, or sexually violative ones.)


[FYI:  I edited this post later on March 21 to fix a few typos and add some clarifying language.]

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