BlogHer ‘09: The Weaponizing of the Blogosphere

image Earlier this week, Liz Strauss posted here at SiliconANGLE about what has emerged as the prevailing theme of the now-finished BlogHer conference: Swag.

The predilection with free stuff has popped up everywhere in almost every post-conference wrap-up I’ve seen, something that’s no doubt been somewhat of a disappointment to conference organizers.

The meme has made it’s way full circle around the blogosphere, though. Aside from Liz’s post, I saw it show up next over at Shooting at Bubbles, where Steven Hodson quoted Crocs marketing chief George Smith:

Anyway, it was about mid-afternoon when someone came up to me. I’ll call her generic mommyblogger because I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup if I tried.

“Are you the Crocs guy?” she asks, timidly.

I look up and smile. After all, it’s nice to be recognize and it’s a sign that I’m doing my job right.

“Yes, I am.”

We continue with small talk. She says her name but, while I probably caught it at the time, it slipped out of my memory as the events of the next couple moments transpired. She asked how I was doing at BlogHer. If I was having fun. How it felt to be one of the only men there – all those typical questions that were being asked of me. Then her demeanor changed completely. She mentioned how she didn’t get any shoes at the SocialLuxe lounge. I apologized, saying that we provided what we could but it’s hard because we didn’t know everyone’s shoe size. She nodded but I could tell that wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear. Then she says something that I couldn’t believe.

“Ya know, if you don’t give me shoes – I could totally write something bad about you on my blog.”

“Excuse me?” I asked – hoping she would laugh or give me some indication that she was just joking around. Nope…

“It’s just a pair of shoes. It’s a lot easier to give them to me than deal with the negative press I could make.”

It’s an unfortunate interchange that’s most likely going to become the most memorable, influential and most blogged exchange of BlogHer.  I’ve never been to the conference, but I know a number of the organizers and higher-ups of the company, and it appears now to most people that this is the culture of their community, which doesn’t necessarily scan for me.

The Purity Integrity Patrol Responds to the ‘Culture of Greedy Bloggers’

Social media and SEO expert Lisa Barone was quick to point out that social media shouldn’t be used as a weapon. There were a couple thing she posited that rubbed me the wrong way:

Earlier this month we all met Dave Carroll. Dave was a wannabe musician who felt he was wronged by United Airlines and created a series of videos to tell the world about it. And the videos were a hit. You all broke into simultaneous gigglefits at his genius. It was hailed as the best online reputation attack ever, the perfect example of what can happen when big companies decide not to listen to customers.Way to go, Dave!

I wasn’t so convinced. I didn’t like how premeditated the whole thing felt. At the time, I wondered if we were headed down a slippery slope.

I’ve watched people praise this, and I admit, it’s clever, but this guy is using social media as a weapon here, which I don’t particularly like. For all his great fear that his guitar was destroyed, he didn’t even check it while still in the airport because he was “tired”. If my 1200 baby was caught being thrown around, I’d probably check on it before I left and make sure I got that claim in on time. Instead, he waits, United isn’t quick to fill it and he gets to exploit them for his 15 minutes of fame.

I hope he enjoys it because that music career likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Where people were using the new tools of social media to purposefully hurt one another:

Joe: Just because you know how to ruin someone’s reputation and you have the tools to do it, doesn’t make it right. This guy wasn’t blameless and he knew how to manipulate his 15 minutes of fame.

I was basically mocked, told that I was “lame”, that I should “do some research” and that these kinds of attacks were a sign of consumers taking back power from large brands. All hail consumer advocacy!

Personally, I’m a huge advocate of using social media as a weapon, and not to get overly political, but I’m pretty sure Lisa might have used the wrong metaphor (after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people).  Social media is a tool, to be sure, and a tool can be used a number of ways (including as a weapon). So can a hammer.  You can say, in general, that a hammer should not be used as a weapon, even though it can be a pretty effective weapon in a pinch…

image… but to say that social media shouldn’t be used as a weapon is the exact same as saying that a hammer shouldn’t be used as a weapon.  It isn’t your place to make that judgment call, because there are plenty of valid situations where a hammer or social media are great tools to use as weapons.

I could point to dozens of horror flicks where hammers have come in pretty useful as weapons, just as you could think of dozens of times you’ve been royally screwed by the oblivious customer service department of this or that giant corporate entity where your only form of retribution or shot at getting what’s owed to you is to simply blog it.

Beyond the corporate world, though, using social media as a weapon is the basis for what we saw occur in Iran during their revolution to have what was owed to their citizenry: fair and free elections.  Would Lisa argue that using social media as a weapon in that context is wrong?  I doubt it.

Integrity isn’t defined by never using a weapon against an individual…

image This idea of not using social media as a weapon, particularly never aiming it at individuals, isn’t my ideal definition of the word integrity. 

This idea that negativity towards individuals and individual entities has been seized, though, broadened up, and turned into a pledge, as was noted by several bloggers this week, including Social Media Coach Andi Fisher, and blogger Michelle Lentz at bub.blicio.us.

Michelle said:

I just got back from BlogHer  ‘09, a conference which astounded and disappointed me all at once. Amongst other things, I was floored at the number of attendees who wanted “pay for post.”

I pride myself on my blogging ethics. As a wine blogger, I receive a lot of samples and a lot of complimentary meals. I also have a disclaimer and sample policy on my blog and I make sure that whenever I receive something for free, I tell my readers. Giving me something for free does not guarantee a positive review. If an winery advertises on my site, I won’t review their wines. As a tech blogger, I also occasionally receive technology to review and when I’m done, I give it back. I do not have a multitude of phones and gadgets sitting around for which I didn’t pay.

Andi spoke to it similarly:

I have been reading stories coming out of BlogHer that are just appalling. Granted, negative press is nearly always going to be the preferred path, it sells more. I know this is the minority of the cases, but it is still disturbing!

The questions on integrity, disclosure, transparency started reappearing a couple of months ago with these articles here and here. Last night I saw Jessica Gottlieb mention Blogging with Integrity on Twitter and then it appeared again in this NPR article today.

I signed the petition. It is something I believe in wholeheartedly. This is a fantastic community and those that act responsibly and maintain the goodwill of this community have nothing to fear in saying so.

I’m not against voluntary self-regulation and disclaimers.  In general, pay-per-post is a bad idea for both advertisers/merchants as well as bloggers.  This runs deeper than that.

image I think what we can all agree on is that wielding the threat of bad coverage as a weapon for advancement (be it fiscal or for perceived influence) is a Bad Thing.

Also a Bad Thing? Creating a purity patrol, or a league of bloggers that are somehow better than the rest by virtue of the fact that they’ve signed a group manifesto of acceptable behavior. It’s the type of attitude that reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition that top bloggers often engage in every time Izea is mentioned.

Using social media as a weapon in general can be a very Good Thing, as we saw with the #iranelection example.

On a personal level, and more germane to this issue, I’ve proudly used SEO and social media as a weapon in the past because it’s the most powerful weapon in my personal arsenal.  I talked about one particular example several times over the years, most recently in a blog post here at SiliconANGLE in response to Mark Cuban on the topic of PR 2.0:

How Bad Customer Service Can Ruin You
imageThere are two examples of this that immediately spring to mind.  One such example came as a direct result of a run-in I had with a former landlord a number of years ago.  I had the unfortunate opportunity to be subject to an East Texas despot masquerading as a property manager who one day had it in his head to start a physical altercation with my wife while she was nine months pregnant a couple years ago. Needless to say, I was a little irked.

After my aggressive negotiations with the man subsequent to the altercation only lead to what can charitably be described as extreme disdain for one another on both sides of the table. True to form of the stereotypical ego-centric blogger, I wrote about it on my personal domain and took special care to make sure my post detailing his altercation with my wife SEO’ed higher than the website he used to rent out apartments did.

The net result was that in just under a year’s time, his ability to rent out to new tenants was so severely damaged that he had to sell the bulk of the properties he owned due to low occupancy.  The traffic to those pages on my blog was insignificant compared to the rest of my readership, let alone the rest of the web. None the less, because my site was the first to pop up when you searched for real estate in East Texas as well as his company’s name, his reputation suffered greatly.

It’s a situation where the man was behaving poorly, and traditional channels of retribution wouldn’t work.  The Better Business Bureau wouldn’t take the complaint since it was of a personal nature.  He advertised that he was a part of the Texas Renters Association, but actually wasn’t (so there were no official avenues to launch a complaint there, either), and given the fact that he was head of his own company and clearly unreasonable, direct confrontation was only likely to result in something one or both of us might get arrested for.

Thus, using my craft as a weapon was the most appealing option to take.

Conflating this behavior with the original mommyblogger in question, as well as Dave Carroll (as Lisa Barone did) is mixing apples and oranges.  It’s the equivalent to conflating what Michael Meyers, Indiana Jones and the tropical farmer all do respectively with their machetes.

The same tool can have dozens of different uses, both for ill and for good.  Broadly generalizing certain uses of a tool isn’t productive – calling out bad behavior is.

For my money, Steven Hodson said it best: “So to the woman who pulled this crap – thanks a whole bunch. To any bloggers, regardless of niche, who think it’s okay to act like a bunch of money grubbing dummies – stop it.”

In attacking this individual, and her motivations, he violates the tenets of the Integrity Pledge (created in response to this issue), and more accurately stabs at the heart of the problem than those attacking the broader issue of Pay-Per-Post or weaponized social media.

About Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins

Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins is the Founding Editor of SiliconANGLE, as well as the creator of and Executive Producer for theCUBE. He’s a Bitcoin early adopter, as well as a blogging, podcasting and social media pioneer. Prior the founding of SiliconANGLE, Hopkins worked as Associate Editor at Mashable during its formative years. Prior to his career in startups and media, he worked as a developer for large corporations like Nokia, IBM, Apple and Cox Communications. Hopkins lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and two children.