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Guillotine Owners Stay Ahead
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

When is Conversation Not Conversation? Visit a Blog Lately?

I had an inane exchange with a social media consultant on his blog last week that reminded me of a truism: just as the rule for understanding politics is to follow the money, an important quality of social media experience is revealed when you consider the role of the megaphone owner...or, in this case, the guy who operates the guillotine.

Our topic wasn't important and the guy is probably an otherwise fine human being; I'm much more interested in what our "conversation" told me about the role of social tools like blogging, especially when they seem to be considered by many people to be a viable alternative to traditional media outlets, or often an outright replacement for them. I'm troubled by that prospect, even as I'm thrilled and encouraged for the future potential applications of social media technology.

The Return of the Wet Kiss

Blog posts are not journalism, and I don't think many claim to be, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I worked in PR for a long time and I know how maddeningly complicated and often unfair it was to try and get a reporter interested in a story. They're human beings (mostly) and come with their individual skills, biases, and personalities, so I remember spending more time trying to read those tea leaves than I (or we) did exploring the actual substance of news stories. The New York Times' motto said it all: "All the News That's Fit to Print" was put into practice by the ongoing actions and judgments of reporters and editors, not by the application of some truly objective and consistent set of rules.

Yet all that imperfection was tolerable because it gave us some level of verifiable trust in the truth and accuracy of what we were being told. Companies were sometimes asked difficult questions, and their claims were checked and intentions challenged. The rules for journalism were sometimes fluid and often violated but we knew them, at least somewhat, and the media entities that produced the content could be held accountable, or at least expected to be equally if not capriciously cruel to everyone. The principles of journalism could be taught in school, and professional associations exist to preserve and improve them. The fact that reporters didn't always do what we propagandists wanted them to do was the main reason why what they did ultimately had value.

I knew journalists. Some journalists were friends of mine. And bloggers are no journalists.

The consultant who prompted this post made no bones about how thrilled he was about getting pitched and subsequently "handled" by a corporate flack. He was happy to shoot video of a big brand's talking head making utterly insane claims, and then reaffirm the nuttiness in his own textual post (after showering more love on his PR friend). Forget this stuff never making it into a real reporter’s story; the claims wouldn't pass the smell test required to get into an ad, either. I don't know how the guy kept a straight face as he repurposed all the nonsense he'd been fed, but then again, there are no rules, requirements, or accountability for blog posts.

I wonder whether such blatant wet kisses actually hurt the credibility and integrity of brands? It's like when a dog obeys its master and sits with a treat on its nose until far past the time it should have gobbled it up; it's entertaining but at some point the dog's fealty is embarrassing. Maybe there's a latent perceptual negative from soliciting (and tolerating) such effusive praise?

Volleys Aren't Debate

I know, the point of the new journalism is that the citizen reporter/blogger wasn't supposed to insert his biases between content and consumer. He simply presented information so that we of the crowd could vet and judge it. This is the self-correcting mechanism of social media that purports to be an improvement over the command-and-control behavior of old media outlets.

Only when did crowds get smart? They've been wrong far more times than right throughout history, and even as recently in the 19th century they were considered mad. Crowds encouraged medieval plague sufferers to kills cats and Jews; decided that the way to ensure affordable bread prices in Revolutionary France was to scour the prisons for convicts to execute; and elected Hitler's political party and chose the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks. Their track records in business haven't been much better, most notably having given the world the design specs for Ford's gloriously silly Edsel in the 1950s.

Worse, even if the crowd could distill truth (i.e. when it works, like it can in some Wikipedia entries, although there it's only because participation is mediated by format, process, and an anonymous board of judges), the formats of blogs, microblogs, or even chat rooms/IM have trouble facilitating conversation for two primary reasons:

  • Entries are public, so much of the content is created with an eye toward consumption by the crowd and future capture by search. This changes the very substance of what's talked about, and not automatically for the better, since many comments focus on dissecting the language and guessing the motivations of other posts (vs. communicating anything new or real).
     
  • Entries are linear, one after the other, and devoid of emotions or the other sight and sound cues that we rely upon for meaning. Comments aren't conversation as much as linear volleys of thoughts, one after the other.

Again, I wonder if replacing the imperfect judgment of a journalist with the give-and-take of somewhat anonymous members of the crowd is an effective way to sort out the truth. Our conventional wisdom says it is, but I can guarantee from at least one recent experience that such an outcome is anything but certain.

Only One Lever

The real catch in any description of the free, open, collaborative nature of new media conversations is that somebody always controls the on-and-off switch...which means someone ultimately decides when the conversation has boundaries, closes, and is all about promoting only one POV (just like in the imperfect days of old media). So when my blogger friend announced that he wanted to discuss the beautiful success of the story he'd just repurposed from his PR friend, he staked out his intention to solicit similarly loving comments. The content he was providing to his visitors was intended to inspire them to talk about how much they agreed with him.

In this way, many blog posts are less like conversations than they are like one of those Chris Farley skits from SNL when he'd accost a star and say, "you're the guy who sang that great song," and when the star agreed, Farley would nod awkwardly and mutter, "yeah, that was great."

I made the mistake of disagreeing with the guy, however, which inspired him and then another poster to tell me why I was wrong. Fair enough. I challenged their claims, at which point my motivations were questioned and I was told again that I was wrong. So much for conversation. Then it ended because the blogger kept entering the last word. It ended when he decided it should, and did so on the terms he defined. Having the last word seems to be the final arbiter of truth, and it was delivered with a not-so-witty zinger.

There are many bloggers who propagate really useful information and insights into the cosmos (I hope I'm one of them). There are even more than a few who are willing to participate in real conversations that could change their opinions (I know that I'm included in this group). My experience with one blogger was minor and somewhat entertaining, but it did get me thinking generally about the mechanisms of social discourse. I think it's troubling when conversations about it get formatted, filtered, and controlled by the very medium itself.

Last week kinda felt like I was debating sanity with someone comfortably ensconced in an insane asylum.

Added: 4th October 2010

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