The Top 5 Best and Worst Things About the Blogosphere

People either love or hate blogs, with little in between. When I first started writing this one, I was definitely a hater. In fact, these were the first words I ever uttered in the bloguverse:

“Blah, blah, blog.  I hate blogs.  Self-centered, self-righteous, self-reinforcing, self-gratification.  Seldom right, but never in doubt.”

Thus began my self-loathing career as a person who writes blogs, but most assuredly is not a “blogger.”  (Those people are pathetic, don’t you think?)

But almost six years later, my take on blogs is a bit more nuanced and ambivalent.  Upon further reflection, this is how the pros and cons of the blogosphere net out for me.

The Worst

Anonymous contributors and the vitriol that brings.  Where blog participants are allowed to be anonymous, conversations get juvenile and shallow in a hurry.   That says a lot about human nature, and it limits the promise of blogs.  For me, this is the worst part of hanging around blogs.

The lack of fact-checking.  When it comes to truthiness, you can trust mainstream news outlets much more than blogs, because there are accountability rules and editors at the ready at mainstream news outlets.  Lots of bloggers don’t care about accuracy, and their readers take them at face value and get deceived.  Even bloggers who care about accuracy make bad mistakes when they are blogging on the fly in the middle of a work day, with no support staff to save them.  All of the inaccuracy in blogs is bad for blog readers, and for the credibility of the medium.

The overwhelming volume of information.  The Google machine tells me that there are currently more than 180 million blogs in existence.  The sheer volume of blogs makes it very difficult to find the worthwhile needles in this cyber-haystack.  That limits the promise of blogs. The “drinking from a firehose” cliche is inadequate here.  Drinking from Niagra Falls?

The echo chamberiszation of the planet.   In the blogosphere, most of us seek out voices that support our preconceived notions.  That balkanizes opinion, insulates us from true contemplation and make us all boorish.

The rush to judgement.  Unlike traditional publications, blogs can be published in the time it takes to click a mouse.  This makes the world move a lot faster.  If bloggers don’t post on breaking news now, they feel like the post will be stale.  As a result, bloggers often bypass education and deliberation, and go straight to pontification.  The world needs more education and deliberation, and less instant pontification, and breakneck speed of blogging aggravates the situation.

The Best

The lack of information gatekeepers.  Pre-Internet, very few of us had the money to start a publication to share our own thoughts.  Very few of us were talented enough to get published.   Even among professional writers, very few were allowed to write whatever they wanted.  Bankers, publishers, and copy editors have historically been among the many powerful barriers to mass unfiltered self-expression.  But free services like WordPress allow anyone to say whatever they want whenever they want.    If their mutterings are interesting or provocative enough, they will get spread around to others, for free.  Blogs have made free speech a little more free.

The lack of money influencing publishing decisions.  Almost no blogger makes money blogging.  That means that blog writing is less likely than mainstream media reporting and commentary to be influenced by commercial considerations, such as “what will the advertisers do if I write that.”   For this reason, there often is more speaking truth to power on blogs than there is in the mainstream news media.

The focus on connecting the dots of the daily news.  Only a relative few bloggers uncover actual news.  The rest of us merely connect the dots of news that is reported by mainstrain news reporters.  What mainstream reporters do is more important than what we do here, because it is a necessary prerequisite of what we do here. But connecting the dots is not unimportant.  News events are not stand alone entities unto themselves.  The interplay of news events matters.  These are  important things for citizens in a democracy to be discussing, and more of that type of discussion is happening because of blogs.

The coverage of previously ignored niches.  Mainstream news reporters necessarily can’t cover every societal niche.  But 180 million bloggers can come pretty close.  For people like me with nichey minds, that’s a good thing.

The lack of editing and style guides.  Many of my English major friends who cuddle up with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and my journalism and PR friends who are slaves to the AP Stylebook, can’t abide the no holds barred nature of blog prose.  They mourn the fact that no editor is used by bloggers to spare readers from the ravages of cliches, clunky phrasing, inconsistent usage, misused-hyphens,  and unconventional word choices (e.g. see “bloguverse,” “nichey,” “The Google machine,” “truthiness”) .  But the raw semantic and syntax anarchy you find in blogs also brings much color, fun, creativity, risk-taking and spontaneity to the conversations.   It makes information exchange a little less stuffy and controlled.  Sorry, Strunk, but I love all of that unsanitized prose.

– Loveland

Truth as PR? Top Soldier & Some Colleges Say Yes

When I was with an intergalactic PR agency, “Reputation Management” became the next big thing. I thought it was mostly bullshit until I heard the guy who ran reputation management for our agency, and the guy who literally wrote the book on reputation management, talk about transparency. “You mean,” I recall asking them, “that a company would let people see inside, see what’s really going on?” “Yup,” they said.

I thought that was revolutionary. Transparency — in plain language that would be called “truth” or “honesty.” Not spin. Not making something bad look good. And, like Christianity or Islam, it’s a great theory that if truly practiced would be wonderful.

Several colleges, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have recently endorsed transparency, and it’s refreshing. Moose_in_the_window

In today’s New York Times, a great story tells how several colleges — including M.I.T. and Carleton — are letting students blog about college life uncensored on the colleges websites. The students — who are chosen by the administration in most cases — are able to tell it like it is. They write whatever they want about classes, profs, dorm food, problems, extracurricular activities — and they give a lively view of life at each college.

“A lot of people in admissions have not been eager for bloggers, mostly based on fears that we can’t control what people are saying,” said Jess Lord, dean of admissions at Haverford College, which posted student bloggers’ accounts of their summer activities this year, and plans to add bloggers this spring to help admitted students hear about campus life. “We’re learning, slowly, that this is how the world works, especially for high school students.”

Colleges are finding this a compelling way to attract students — and those high school students considering colleges are used to writing and reading blogs that tell the full story, warts and all.

The rowdy nature of blogs can be compelling. I was talking to a highly regarded new intern at my friend Jorg Pierach’s Fasthorse marketing firm last night. She found Fasthorse on Google, and said she was attracted to the agency by its blog — called Idea Peepshow — which reflects the joint’s personality.

When transparency reigns, amazing things can happen. Problems can be addressed, not hidden. From the Times story, about the M.I.T. blog:

And not all posts are positive. Ms. Kim once wrote about how the resident advising system was making it impossible for her to move out of her housing — expressing enough irritation that the housing office requested that the admissions office take her post down. Officials refused, instead having the housing office post a rebuttal of her accusations; eventually, the system was changed.

Transparency got an unexpected and powerful endorsement from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. An August 29 NYTimes story showed the Admiral ripping a strategic communication effort by the government aimed at improving relations with the Muslim world. “No amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting,” the story paraphrased Mullen.
080702-N-0696M-120
Listen to what Mullen wrote in Joint Force Quarterly:

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and worry a lot more about what our actions communicate.

I would argue that most strategic communications problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.

This is a courageous thing to say. A PR person saying this to a CEO could risk his or her career. In the military or in a closed-minded administration, a person saying this could be called disloyal. Admiral Mullen deserves a standing ovation on this — we in public relations or reputation management should have Mullen’s words tattooed on our foreheads.

True reputation management requires transparency. And it requires that an organization earn its reputation with actions that are consistent with its values. You can’t manage a good reputation for a bad organization. We owe it to our employers and clients, their customers, and our fellow citizens, to push for actions that can be looked at fully in the clear light of day.

Actions communicate, Mullen says. Words are just words.

— Bruce Benidt
(Moose/window photo from Alaska DOT. Mullen photo from wired.com)

New Wave Update

Not unlike the Buggles’ chirping of the 1980s post-mortem “Video Killed the Radio Star” at the dawn of the MTV age, a new Pew Research study reminds us that youtube video is killing the newspaper star. And stomping a little harder on the corpse of the radio star. And threatening the relevance of the flat-footed PR star.

There probably is not a lot here that will surprise savvy Rowdies, but still this is a historic, dramatic and disruptive shift, and therefore worthy of a moment of solemn reflection.

(Moment of solemn reflection.)

Pew tells us that the largest group of consumers, almost half of all Americans, are still “traditionalists” who get their news from traditional outlets, primarily TV news. But about a quarter of us are now “integrators,” who get our news from both the Internet and traditional news, primarily TV. About 13% of us are “net newsers” who get their news from the Internet, including blogs. And about one in five go newsless. The largest and fastest growing segment of the newsless is the 18-24 crowd.

So, what’s the future? Plastics. Beyond that, the latter two groups are growing rapidly, while Senator McCain’s “traditionalists” are shrinking, due to both the steady march of technology adaptation and, well, natural causes.

What does that mean for PR professionals? Well, it doesn’t mean the traditional news media is dead. Yet. Traditional news media should still be a part of most communications plans, particularly those targeting older people with an unhealthy obsession with the weather. But if you’re planning into the future or particularly trying to influence affluent and tech-savvy news junkies, you better swallow your pride and ask the blue haired kid down the hall (Keliher) how a blog, vlog, clog, RSS and news aggregator works.

– Loveland

purchase order financing fine

Balkanization By Blog

This week we’ve been fortunate to be hosting friends who are serving their country in a non-military way in Serbia. While they love most things about Serbia specifically and the Balkans in general, they talk about how much they miss the relative civility of Minnesota and America, where people are much more likely to stand in line, drive courteously, exchange small talk, and tolerate differences. While our friends are well aware of Americans’ shortcomings in these areas, they talk about how much seemingly insignificant acts of civility make day-to-day life so much easier and more pleasant in Minnesota.

This is heartening. But where our friends are less correct in their generous assessment of the relative state of American civility is on American blogs. With the distance and cover blogs provide, we are free to be our true selves without being held personally accountable. And what we do with that distance aint always pretty.

We are more nasty and polarizing on blogs than we are face-to-face. We say things in cyberspace that we don’t say face-to-face. I’ve even witnessed people taking on others’ identities on blogs, people I’m sure would never steal their neighbor’s identification cards and use them in an impersonation scheme.

As I listen to my friends describe communications in the Balkan states, I’ve felt proud about our society. But what I witness on blogs, one of the fastest growing forms of communications in America, makes me worry about our trend line.

– Loveland

business expense spreadsheet fine

Dirty Laundering Through Blogs

In the old days if a political candidate or party official wanted to attack their opponent, they usually had to do it directly and be accountable for it. One way the proliferation of political blogs has changed campaigns is that politicos no longer have to air dirty laundry themselves. They can hand it off to supportive bloggers who then “break” the story in hyperbolic terms, and then the mainstream reporters cover the bloggers “reporting” this news.

In this way, the candidate doesn’t have to soil herself or himself with the blow-back from attacks. They don’t have to answer follow-up questions. They don’t have to be accountable for inaccuracies or exaggerations. They can focus on placing gooey ads that build up their positive images, while avoiding the negative associations with their below-the-radar sniping.

I don’t know if the researth finding that Al Franken has more tax trouble in California originated with www.minnesotademocratsexposed.com (MDE) or with the Coleman for Senate campaign or another pro-Coleman organization. But often these kinds of blog stories are orchestrated by political organizations. MDE is very upfront about the fact that much of the information it publishes originates with Republican campaigns and conservative orgainzations. This is not reporting as we’ve known it; it is information laundering.

This is not to say that bloggers, perhaps including MDE, aren’t doing some terrific reporting on their own. A few are. And it certainly is not to say that only Republicans are engaged in blogger puppeteering. It is a game being played with vigor by folks of all political stripes.

But I’m old school. I prefer candidates having to stand up, make their case, answer follow-up questions and be held directly accountable for their actions and points-of-view. It’s a more honest, transparent and informative way for information to flow from politico to voter. But the proliferation of blog information laundering is what it is, and it has changed public affairs oriented PR dramatically.

– Loveland

paycheck calculator kind