The Mighty Parasites

From The New York Times, November 26, 2005

As Corporate Ad Money Flows Their Way, Bloggers Risk Their Rebel Reputation
By LOUISE STORY

After a week, you’ll probably have to pay to read that story online. Basically, it just says that some bloggers are making money by accepting ads, by talking up products, or simply by linking to other blogs that do those things. “After beginning as a vehicle for anti-establishment, noncommercial writers, many Web logs have laid out welcome mats for corporate America in the last couple of years.” OH NO! This looks like the end…for UNDERDOG! Or at least the well-known objectivity and altruism of bloggers. No, really…come on, stop laughing….

If anything, it signals the end of the old-school group of professional newspaper opinion columnists. While certain ones are still quoted reverently, as a group they are increasingly irrelevant to the popular culture.

By “popular culture,” I mean that imaginative, amorphous idea of what our society values at any particular moment. It is a necessary fiction for justifying the marketing budgets in certain industries, such as cars, toys, newspapers, razors, and drugs (legal and illegal). It’s a moving target, but when the number of worldwide Web log writers (21.5 million) exceeds the total U.S. weekday evening newspaper circulation (about 9 million in 2003), it’s kind of a bad sign. More importantly for marketing executives, only about 23% of people aged 18 to 29 have reported reading a newspaper the previous day (2004), and among readers, the editorial page was read by only 17% of those 18 to 24, and 25% of those 25 to 34 (2003). [“The State of the News Media 2005“]

I don’t have estimates for numbers of blog readers, or how many people read blogs rather than read newspaper op-eds or watch TV commentators. However, I think the trend line is clear. Blogs are up; birdcage liners are down. Cable TV pundits have ratcheted up their theatrics in order to compete with radio and Web pundits for attention in the Roman circus. Meanwhile, local TV stations are being forced to accelerate the transformation of their “news” into sensational “special reports” about street crime and middle-class scandals. Try to avoid the lean, hungry jackals who work for local TV stations; they’re trying to find a fat blogger to feed on.

Am I against bloggers making money for doing what comes naturally? No, not at all. Disclosure would be nice, but only to enhance their appearance of virtue, so that I feel better about trusting them. I think the cynical modern consumer assumes that any endorsement entails some kind of benefit for the endorser, and any advertisement or product placement implies some kind of endorsement.

It may not be fair, but when I see an ad on a site, my first impression is that the site owner is endorsing the product or service. At the very least, the site owner takes money to look the other way. It is quite simply a lie to say that they bear no responsibility for their sponsors or that they endorsed something with no expectation of reward, if only an ego boost from being a trend follower.

Whether it involves products, services, ideas, urban legends, or relationships, spreading rumors is a kind of multilevel marketing scheme: Some of Mighty Super Blogger’s prestige rubs off when Mediocre Brown-Nose Blogger repeats his wisdom, then Weaselly Hack Blogger repeats it again and accrues slightly less social capital, and it goes on down the line until Parasitic Bad Speller Blogger gets it way too late and actually derives no benefit at all.

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