A free and open market in credibility

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about the controversy swirling around Microsoft paying bloggers — including Mike Arrington, Om Malik, Paul Kedrosky, Richard MacManus and Fred Wilson — to provide quotes for an ad campaign about being “people ready” (at this point there’s a fair bit of irony in that phrase, which should probably be changed to “blogosphere ready” — which Microsoft clearly is not). People like Frank Shaw of Waggener Erdstrom (Microsoft’s PR company) see this as just another swarm in the blogosphere echo chamber, but I think there are important issues at stake.

snipshot_e4ws0kr8o31.jpgJohn Battelle says (if I read him correctly) that it’s important to experiment with new forms of conversation, and that the primary issue in this case was disclosure, which Mike Arrington takes him to task for, since he sees it as foisting all the responsibility onto the authors in this case — or “throwing them under the bus,” in Mike’s colourful phrase (the comments on Mike’s post have other opinions, including a fairly snotty one from Rogers Cadenhead). Some have argued that this whole affair is much ado about nothing, since “advertorial” and endorsements occur all the time — including radio ads with TWiT’s Leo Laporte, as Scoble points out (and there’s some more discussion worth reading in Scoble’s comments).

One thing to remember, I think, is that ultimately all the metaphors — comparing this to magazine advertorials or radio ads or Tom Cruise pitching scotch in Japan or whatever — fail because we’re talking about a relatively new medium. Yes, it’s true that TechCrunch.com and GigaOm.com are a lot like magazines, and that makes Mike and Om a lot like journalists (and of course Om has actually been one, and arguably still is) and so people expect them to behave in certain ways. Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not.

In a lot of ways, we’re watching what is effectively a new medium develop its own way of dealing with issues of credibility in real time. Whenever there’s something like Edelman and Wal-Mart, or Microsoft and the Ferrari laptops, or even PayPerPost, it brings up the same questions: How do we judge someone’s credibility? How do we know whom to trust? It’s something I get asked all the time by people still grappling with the blogosphere.

As my friend and fellow mesh organizer Rob Hyndman has suggested — in comments like this one — I think every blogger effectively negotiates a trust relationship with his or her readers every time they write a new post, or submit a quote for an ad, or agree to an endorsement. That’s a lot more complicated and messy than relying on a masthead to carry the freight for you, but at least it puts you in control of your own fate.

The only thing to remember is that trust is a slippery slope — by the time you’ve lost ground, it may already be too late.

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