I want to clarify a bit on the paid blogging front, and particularly on Marqui’s approach. Some (not Ms. Lawley) have privately suggested that I was being overly critical of mamamusings by labeling her decisions to take payment from Marqui as a “sell out.” I want to make clear that this was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I wasn’t making a particular moral judgment on her decision to become a Marqui marketer. It just raises a lot of interesting issues. Some of these issues have already been commented on in her own blog, and Torill’s blog, and elsewhere.
If Marqui were to offer me $800 a month to blog (and no, this is not a solicitation — mamamusings has significantly more reach than my site does), as public-school academic, passing this up would constitute a real opportunity cost for me. In other words, I would have a very hard time saying “no.” While it is easy for me to say that I will remain an unpaid blogger, it’s mainly easy because I don’t have a viable alternative!
The question that any form of payment tends to bring up is one of trust. Do we trust someone who is being paid to write something?
Adwords and other forms of banner advertising tend, I think, to not significantly affect the degree to which a reader will trust a personal blog. While Google does put some restrictions on what you may say if you have their ads on your site, these restrictions tend to be minimal. One of the reasons that this has a relatively minimal effect is that it respects the long-established wall between editorial content and advertising. This wall is thought to be (rightly or wrongly) relatively impervious in more trustworthy news environments (the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the BBC, etc.), and far more porous in others (Vogue, Elle). At the most extreme level are sources like Cargo, which is tied closely to “reviewing” products — as is the “Fetish” section of Wired. Savvy readers know that these editorial pieces are often no better than ads, but will that spread to paid blogging?
Even at the most basic level, any time you are being paid to blog, I think it introduces a question as to whether that influences your opinions. Of course, the nature of blogs is different from the nature of news reporting, in many cases. People come to a weblog because they expect the writing to be subjective. The question is not really bias, but who’s bias. I want to know about Liz’s bias. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know about Marqui’s subjective opinion. It’s not entirely clear to me how much of each I am getting when I read Liz’s opinions on the topic.
One might even suggest that the right kind of advertising support would free people from outside influence on their blogging. As much as I would like to think it was otherwise, there are cases where I have been less than candid about my own institution in part because they are paying my bills. Part of that is simply that I am biased toward my own institution because it is part of who I am. Part is more strategic: I want to attract the best faculty and students to my own institution because it benefits me. Part is more economic: if I say that I think the new president of the university is paid far too much to do little more than pad the administrative ranks while starving the faculty, there is the (extremely remote) possibility I could lose my source of income. Perhaps if I had $8,000 a month in advertising coming my way, from a wide variety of sources, you could trust my opinions more because I would not be beholden to anyone in particular.
Now, Marqui is at least keeping things transparent. Unlike some other attempts, we know who is being paid to blog about Marqui, and we know that they are not forcing them to say nice things. Liz is nodding at a separation between content and advertising by keeping her Marqui posts under the category of “Sponsored.” (It’s not clear to me whether she will continue to literally box off sponsored posts or not, though so many read via RSS that this is largely a non-issue.) She says she is not going to banner below or above with “the following is advertising,” something that is common in magazines, for example.
Nonetheless, I can say unequivocally that I will not trust Liz’s opinion on the topic of Marqui, because she is a paid spokesperson. This is true of all the Marqui bloggers. If I want an informed opinion, I’ll go to someone who remains more impartial. Regardless of Marqui’s stated policy, we know who is paying the piper, and we have to wonder who is calling the tune. Marqui’s strategy has to be that getting the name out there is primary, and that they can spin it positively once enough people have heard the name.
The question I have, and I won’t know until the months go by, is whether this “leaks” into the other postings by Liz. Again, I would expect her to speak highly of RIT (her university) throughout the blog, I expect that she is positively biased toward that institution, and I read accordingly. Is this also now the case with Marqui? Is Marqui now also “her institution,” and to what degree?
I’m not trying to pick on mamamusings here directly, nor condemn her decision in the least, but I think this is an important question to ask. We need only look at the history of new communication technologies to note how the promises for new forms of democratic participation, creativity, and collaboration were crushed by rapid commercialization. I’m not suggesting that paid content necessarily kills the golden goose, but I do think we need to be very mindful of what these new models mean.
fn1. And it’s not even entirely true that I am unpaid. I’ve made a total of about $35 in Amazon referrals over the last year, and exactly $2.85 on my (now defunct) Google ads.