The Criminal Blogger: From Opinion Leader to Shill

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Some of you might have read the Shufflesome review I did a few days back and thought no better. Few of you however, do know that this isn’t the first time I’ve received freebies as a result of articles on my tech-centric blog. In fact, when I used to run a Mac-centric web site (lost my technohappymeal.com domain name to a very evil web hosting company whom I shall not name), it would be commonplace for us to receive samples of Mac hardware or software for review (which we get to keep).

So what’s the big deal then since I’m doing the same thing, except this time on my blog?

Bloggers as Opinion Leaders
Bloggers are popularly seen as opinion leaders since they naturally articulate their experiences well for others to see. However this edge we have as opinion leaders can be subject to abuse. As a result, Dr. Halavais pointed out whether it was really appropriate for bloggers to accept gifts. In his own words, “Obviously, Kevin has done nothing wrong here, and neither has the company. The issue is, how far do they have to do before they (either Kevin or the company) move from opinion leadership to shilling?”

For the rest of us, the Oxford American Dictionary states that a shill refers to “an accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others”. Ivan Chew noted a shill as “posing as a satisfied customer to dupe bystanders into participating in a swindle.”

Bloggers as Shills
Indeed, I agree such reviews can be deceptive. Exactly one day after Dr. Halavais posted his thoughts, The Boston Globe produced an article which hit the nail on this issue, entitled “For a fee, some blogs boost firms“. Investigating such bloggers, journalist Jenn Abelson revealed that paid bloggers do not work in complete isolation, as there are more than 2,000 bloggers whom marketer USWeb enlisted to hawk products and services. You can say that the marketing industry recognizes the power of bloggers when USweb claimed that their business client doubled its sales in the first three months and shot up to the top of Google’s search list.

How it works
Given the Google loves blogs because blogs are link-savvy (unless you’re into the nofollows link attribute), it’s no surprise blogs are targeted for boosting the prominence of a business on the Internet. Even though paid bloggers do it more elegantly, the deception game they play is more deadly than say blog spammers who’s intentions are obvious, recognizable and even stoppable. Given that motivations of paid bloggers and blog spammers are for profit, the real threat really comes from such paid bloggers who hide in sheep’s clothing to consequently further distort and damage the credibility of fellow bloggers with their indiscriminate actions. Granted, this free expression is a natural affordance of the Internet, but without some form of check and balance, the usability of blogs as a source of reference diminishes…

Why Blogs had credibility
BloggersCreed_TIMES.jpgThe importance of blogs was examplified in The Blogger’s Creed, a must-read article for bloggers available as scanned PDF / Full-Text). In his cultural passage reflecting our era of democratized media, Andrew Sullivan defends bloggers’ credibility by explaining that “[t]he genius lies not so much in the bloggers themselves but in the transparent system they have created. In an era of polarized debate, the truth has never been more available. Thank the guys in the pajamas [referring to bloggers]”. He cites how several bloggers have been instrumental in keeping the media in check, whistle-blowing on scandalous political and corporate leaders (e.g. Instapundit.com & Drudge Report). While the critics of blogs cite their lack of professionalism, Andrew felt that journalism itself isn’t really a profession, but more like a craft. All you need is a telephone and a conscience, and you’re all set.

Strangely though, with the occurrence of paid bloggers, we seem to be back at square one. Could Jonathan Klein, a former senior executive of 60 Minutes on Fox News (Yup… FOX) be inadvertently correct when he said… “Bloggers have no checks and balances. [It’s] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas”? Thus, we as bloggers are thrust back into the vicious cycle of checks and balances.

What’s real then?
While it’s common for bloggers to check in on stories by the media, perhaps it’s time for bloggers to check in on fellow blogs, which is what bloggers should be doing in the first place to maintain the bloggers’ dialogue. Meta-blogs (i.e. blogs about blogs) are very popular and all bloggers always blog one another. Taking meta-blogging further, we could do our blogosphere a civil service simply by leaving your comment on in his/her blog. I take it that you are commenting as regularly as you should be aren’t you?

A second and more standard approach may take its cue from the realm of trust online. Trust is a big issue on the web and a few companies such as Verisign and Thawte offer pricey digital certificates that authenticate secured eCommerce sites. A more relevant example would be BizRate which offers consumers a way to rate businesses online. Though militaristic, applying the same rating and provision of trust certificates to reputable bloggers would allow for anyone to immediately determine the trustworthiness of a given blog.

Concluding statements
I think the authenticity of a blogger’s review really depends on the his or her reputation. Such reputable is determined only by the faithful set of readers to one’s blog, so they would know better when someone’s going out of line. Given the time and energy taken to establish good reputable online, it’s less likely that the blogger would put up untruthful reviews. Finally, never ever trust just one review or reference. Make it a habit to check a few sources so you can make the better judgement of what’s out there.

Food for Thought: Where do blog entities such as Engadget and Gizmodo stand since they are also (in a way) paid to blog? How do they demonstrate impartiality?

7 thoughts on “The Criminal Blogger: From Opinion Leader to Shill

  1. Some authors get paid to write. Others get drunk before they write. Some might be naked while they write, or hypnotized or bribed or just plain sane. Whatever is the case, in the end there is no true piece of writing, there is only such writing the reader wants to believe in, or not.

    What creates more credibility, the words of a paid writer or of a writer who recieved a gift? That can´t be answered generally.

    You could send all samples back of course (ask the company to include a return envelope), but would that make a difference?

    You might add that you actually bought one item. You offered to write a review. I “repayed” you by adding a sample. Man, that´s life. Give and take is life.

    Those with a frank voice will always spark suspicion in others. Without impartiality though, no trends could evolve or cease.

  2. One blog review won’t clinch the deal; instead it might stimulate interest. And then there are other sources – user reviews, forums, other blogs.

    Important thing is the declaration – what did you receive to write it? Kevin declared which was important. I noticed.

    Mainstream media suffers the same fate – they are trying to sell papers, or increase viewership. Even scientific journals are subject to agendas.

    Oh well, caveat emptor.

  3. Alex:
    For the record, Shufflesome’s founder subtly mentioned that he would throw in a sample with my order since I said that I was writing a review. You’re on the mark as I paid for one and got one more free for my review effort. Definitely give and take. BTW: When’s UB School of Informatics gonna pay me for links from my blog to our glorious school? Hee hee 😛

    CowboyCaleb:
    Thanks for the kickback from your ever popular yet mysterious blog. 🙂

    Otterman:
    I agree that readers are smarter than what we give them credit for. They can probably smell a skunk from a mile away. The danger though is when significant parts of the blogosphere start to be bought over. There are two effects this will result in:
    1. Multiple sources of information would provide distorted information about a product or service, confusing the consumer
    2. Google search results could be drastically swayed to the marketing company’s favor, just as how comment spam works.

    Either way, I totally agree with you that no one is ever agenda-less. That’s an oxymoron… or just plain moronic 😛

  4. >>>
    Finally, never ever trust just one review or reference. Make it a habit to check a few sources so you can make the better judgement of what’s out there.
    >>>
    This is what librarians in general have been telling students and users for years, who attend “Information Literacy” classes, that information (particularly web information) should be verified and checked against other sources (bec. anyone can just post anything). But still I observe that there’s this tendency for people to just take what they read from websites at face value. Blogs are no different from websites.

    I guess it’s this culture of reading books (which generally have the benefit of editorial guidance and rigour) which is carried over to reading web resources. A habit that must be unlearned.

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