Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The blogger: private citizen or public figure?

There are a number of debates raging at the moment that variously pit bloggers against PR workers (see the comments by Tom Coates) and bloggers against journalists (see the debate between Steve Rubel and Michael Skube).

Both these debates are relevant to what Keith and I are trying to do at Yoosk because we are working at the interface of blogging, PR, journalism and social networking

It seems to me that one obstacle to useful debate is the vocabulary we are hampered with. Starting with the blogger v. PR conflict first, I think we first need to ask the question: who or what is a blogger? This needs to be answered because if all bloggers are essentially private individuals, then the PR industry has no business seeing them as a resource. But are bloggers a homogonous group, all to be treated the same way?

As with so many nouns used these days (e.g. terrorist, insurgent, Muslim, Christian) it describes such a broad group as to be at best meaningless and at worst woefully misleading. The word ‘blogger’ covers such a disparate set of sub-groups with such diverse motivations, beliefs and actions, as to render it a real barrier to understanding. I wish the world would get to grips with its nouns, I really do.

Blog comes from web-log. Traditionally, a log was a daily, first-hand recording of events, perhaps containing some subjective reflections. I think when the term blog was coined that was probably a reasonably fitting description of what they were.

Now the term encompasses the following: online diarists who share the minute detail of their daily lives; creative writers; people who report on events they or their friends have witnessed (dramatic examples include the Charleston University shootings); self-appointed pundits who analyse events and take up a position on them; people who report on what the pundits say and make counter arguments; academics and intellectuals who publish extracts and summaries of research and theories; consultants, PR and marketing staff who write about a subject as a means to indirectly promote their company; new product and website reviewers; authors seeking to promote their books; other artists and entertainers wishing to do the same; politicians wishing to ´connect´ with voters…. I guess there are far more….

The answer to my question is that bloggers are in fact many different things, whose roles often bear absolutely no relation to one another. Clearly we need more terms to describe people who write online than the current one in common use-blogger.

Why does it matter?

Recently, Tom Coates, one of the UK’s outstanding ‘bloggers’ (I’m going to start putting the term in inverted commas now that I have dismissed it as unhelpful) wrote a strongly worded piece about his disgust at being sent press releases by PR people who wanted to promote their clients. Tom’s view, as I understand it, is that real ‘bloggers’ (that is, people like him and other blogging pioneers from the old days) should never be viewed as being a publishing commodity to be exploited for financial gain . The implication is that blogs are no places to disseminate product information, even innovative new products of interest to the blog readers, unless the online writer concerned stumbles across it or is told about it by someone from within their network.

Well, it seems many online writers do want to receive that information-clearly they are not authentic bloggers (ok, I've got fed up of putting it in inverted commas) in Tom’s book. And I think perhaps he has a point- they are a type of online writer, but not close enough to the original term of blogger to be described as such.

Tom also wrote that he considers his blog a personal space, despite the fact that it is clearly in the public domain. Here I think he is on shakier ground and this brings me to the second of the three main questions I have on this subject (the third, asking whether ‘bloggers’ can really be compared to journalists, will appear in the next post).

Which online writers can be considered as public figures ? When is it ok to freely comment on, criticise and hold up for scrutiny the work of an online writer and which of them can be legitimately questioned on their views by any member of the public?

Once people start analysing and commenting in public on events that are external to them, and do this consistently, then I believe they put themselves in the category of public figures. So online diarists who write about themselves and their family are not ‘public bloggers’ but pundits who routinely make judgements on events do fall into the category of ‘public figures’. And by ‘public’ I mean that because what they say is in the public domain and not directly related to their own lives, that the public deserve a right of reply, a right to question their motives and to be given a platform that allows them to do that.

For example, two of the most famous online political commentators (who perhaps more closely resemble owners of a media platform: Adriana Huffington of the Huffington Post and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos) are definitely public figures.

Which brings me back to Tom’s very strong objections to being sent PR releases…

Tom, I admire your ideals but isn't it time to accept that the kind of blog you write, which contains an element of punditry, is a public statement made in a public place?

The logical conclusion is that like it or not, you are entering the public arena by attracting a large readership and so people will want to use your publishing space to get their message across. You can always put up a 'no hawkers sign', as in fact you have done.

Additionally, since you are a public figure, making pronouncements for public consumption, surely you have to accept being treated like one- and this includes by the press as well as by the PR and advertising industry. I'm not saying you are fair game for gratuitous public gossip and stalking, just that you can't apply the values of old world privacy to the present-where private individuals freely express views that reach thousands. Times have changed and you are part of a group of people responsible for that. So be prepared to be asked questions in public about your publicly expressed views (but never your personal life, naturally).

With this in mind, I am therefore asking your permission to enter you as a public figure on Yoosk!


Tom said...

For a start, your argument would probably hold more water if you got my name consistently correct through your post!

Secondly, I don't think you can say that people who express an opinion on the world are de facto public figures. That would extend to pretty much anyone in the world who thinks that Bush is a moron or that Blair was a liar.

Thirdly, there are clearly people out there who court and desire press releases. I consider these people to be working pretty much as journalists using the medium of weblogs. I have no problem with people being sent press releases per se, only in that people are sent them without their explicit opt in. I make no statements anywhere that I'm up for sale or that I am interested in being a delivery mechanism for other people's messaging, therefore I want PR people to stop sending them to me (or at least accept that if they continue to send them to me, I will do my utmost to undermine their campaigns and their success in the world).

Fourthly, you yourself accept that there is no clear dividing line between public and private individual - that you don't think it's reasonable for someone to take photos outside my house for example, or for gratuitous public gossip. So where do you precisely think the border line here is?

If you're anything like the rest of the people who have had this argument from a PR perspective, the line you would take is that if I declare I don't want to receive them, then I shouldn't be sent them. That doesn't seem to me to be quite fitting with your argument that as a public figure I should be obliged to deal with this correspondence.

And what happens when I make that clear and I still get sent things (as has in fact continued to happen)? How should I react then?

And beyond all of this, if I genuinely find the work that's the entire industry of PR people engages in unsavoury and am particularly angry because I don't want to be implicated in it, don't I have a position worth fighting? When I get comments like this posted to my site:

"Our job is to get even "challenging" people like you to write, say and/or do what our clients and companies want -- of your own volition -- and not even realize that you're doing it. If you are telling us that you only want information from people whose views you like and trust, then we'll just reach you through them and you'll never be the wiser."

... am I not entitled to declare this revolting, that it's something I want no part of, and to make it a mission to undermine by any means necessary?

In the end it comes down to a couple of simple things. PR people currently feel that it's my obligation to receive these things and that the best I can do is opt out individually. But I don't agree. I don't think that their effects are as uniformly positive to their brand identities as they'd like people to believe, and I don't believe that all publicity is good publicity. So what if I made it a mission to actively rip down those PR companies who spam me? What if I wrote high Google-juiced posts with the name of the PR company in the title explaining why they're cynical exploitative and piss off bloggers and why you wouldn't want your brand associated with them? Perhaps then PR people would start to understand that we're not a resource to be exploited, that we don't live under the same contract as the press and that as a result we can rebel and fight back.

We can make the work that PR people do actively damage the brands they represent. Then perhaps they'd get the message?

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