November 04, 2004

Core Values of the Web Discussion Ideas for Bloggercon

(Cross posted on the Bloggercon III blog.)

In thinking more about core values we believe ought to be brought to our online dealings—either as a practice, as guideline or in theory—I wanted to understand more about instances where people have trouble with certain behaviors. I wanted to look at why we are concerned and what we want or need in order to create trust and value with each other.

I'm interested in these things: Why we value information online; What context or peripheral information cause information to be more trusted; Why we respect people; and What we need to see visually to trust information we find online, if that is possible or desirable. We appreciate it when people help us with information we need, share insights we hadn't thought of, or give us new windows into previously closed systems or institutions.. Those types of information, presented in a particular format, largely explain why blogging is so popular and appears to be so persistent. (I’m specifically referring here to topic blogging, versus say journaling, though depending on the relationships between reader and writer, what appears to strictly be a journal to some may actually provide insight for others....)

We also appreciate it when people are honest with us. We like it when they share their motivation for publishing, or at least lead us to believe that we know what their motivation is, based on their blog's content. And we like it when we feel we can trust that they're telling us about ethical issues we can't see. The blogosphere has a history of outrage over blogs that have been less than honest about their origins, identity or economic relationships in an attempt to fool readers and linkers into believing things are other than they actually are. However, we cannot force disclosure. We rely on and trust people to tell us the truth about their economic or other relationships.

One thing we've enjoyed the past few years in the blogosphere is a relatively pure state, where people are motivated to blog, link, and connect for many reasons other than money. This is partly because it's been difficult to make money with most blogs. It's the reason that “money and blogging” have been discussion topics at previous events, and at this one, because some bloggers do want to figure out how to make money with their blogs in ways that don't conflict with readers’ sense of ethics, so that they can keep their readers. It has also been possible to blog for profit or other hidden reasons, and therefore online communities have reacted strongly when these examples were discovered.

Many blogs exist without any advertising support, and readers have expressed respect and appreciation for the idea that these blogs are as pure as possible. Because there is no monetary support for the writer, these writers are simply expressing themselves for their love of getting out opinions and ideas. Or because they love to connect with people, and to iterate ideas and talk back to media or other institutions that used to be difficult for individuals to talk back to due to the high transaction costs of mass publishing. Whether this is actually true, or real, it has been people's perception, and supporters of blogging have held up this kind of not-for-profit blogging as laudable, showing examples of how blogging has changed things for the better.

Another model, a slight variation on the one above, has also developed. In this case bloggers who otherwise appear to be operating under the intentions, ideals, and principles of the pure blog model, have taken ads that are unconnected to who or what the blog writer is, how the writing is done, or (mostly) what the subject is. This kind of blogging has been perceived as mostly pure. And those well-schooled in the cues of online communication have believed they could differentiate between when some economic or other benefit has gone to the blogger for her writing versus when an algorithm randomly placed an ad on her blog via some program. AdSense, Blogads, and many self-negotiated ads and sponsors are present on some blogs, but we see them and believe that some sense of integrity has prevailed where the blogger is not paid directly for writing, either writing a certain way, or for writing anything at all. Rather, the ads have often been dependent on readers clicking through, and thus, we haven't seen that ad model as inherently corrupt. Most bloggers I know make between $10 and $100 a month with ads, though I know a few who make thousands of dollars. However, because we can watch the quality of the blogging and because it appears to us that that is not influenced by the ad relationship, we believe we are still seeing the bloggers’ unadulterated voice, opinion, and link referrals—which is the reason we want to read blogs.

Some people may be upset about the monetizing of blogs because they feel that if bloggers have any economic interest in what they write as it is tied to a business model that rewards sales of say, a product they have written about, or if they are paid to write at all, bloggers will be less free to say what they want or believe, because their motivations for writing change. People have gotten a taste of something that didn’t easily exist before: mass distributed and searchable publishing with individual voice, and they don’t want to give that up, even if it isn’t as pure as they perceive.

Others think writers who profit from more than randomly placed ads may be steering themselves and some part of the blogosphere back to top-down media model. They don’t want to see blogs dependent on and beholden to the business side of things, as large media organizations are with other interests than just finding some measure or kind of pure truth, or having biases in ways that purport to show one view when in fact they show another, among other criticisms.

We could label blogs without any ads, sponsors or other monetization as being the pure blogs as ‘angelic,’ the ones with AdSense, etc on the side as slightly ‘heathenish,’ and the ones with actual business models as ‘devilish.’ This sort of labeling construct at times seems to underlay criticisms about blogs that make money, but I think it is unconstructive. Although it is important to bring it to the surface, to make it explicit and discuss it, if only to make clear that it's there. For those who get to define the labels, labeling values and behaviors is powerful, but purity or devilishness only reflect one set of values. People, like the blogosphere, are much more dynamic and varied than those few labels, and therefore they need more dynamic cues in online systems to tell what sort of actions are taking place so that they can make up their own minds about whom to trust and read.

Other value systems that could be applied to blogs without ad systems versus blogs that make money of some sort, could be that of a protestant work ethic or a capitalist ethic, where earning money is much admired, if done relatively honestly. Therefore, money-making blogs that explicitly tell us they do so are the heross of that framework. Or there’s the communitarian value system that values those who promote and enrich the community, those who promote the good work of others, those who share credit, those who collaborate well, etc..., There is also the leadership value system, where those who ferret out good information or push memes or are especially innovative are valued.

Another thing to consider with value systems such as these applied to what is specifically seen on a blog is that they don't take into account other ways authors benefit from blogging. This is because they only consider the direct act of blogging and not the secondary effects outside of the blogosphere inn the author's life or work. I know many bloggers who have found opportunities due to their blogs. I myself have been offered jobs, have been asked to edit books, have been asked to dinner with interesting people that I didn't know but who read my blogs, have been asked on dates, and have generally been treated very differently and much more invitingly in a wide variety of situations because of my blogs, than if I didn't have them. But because these opportunities are not openly apparent on my blog, unless I write about them, readers are not aware of these secondary opportunities. Yet they happen regularly, and have been an extremely positive benefit of blogging, though I didn't start blogging for this reason, and I don't write anything in particular to make anything happen. However, this second degree of reward is potentially corrupting, depending on the circumstances. A blogger who takes a different job might find the blog more highly scrutinized, or that there is pressure to write differently by the new boss. Jeremy Zawodny recently wrote about this after moving back to the search division within Yahoo.

So what values do we use to understand online communication and communities? How are we going to show information about our activities, so that people with different value systems can make their own decisions about our blogs and the information they come across?

Also, are the acts and cues to understand online information presented with these core values different if blogs make money in some way, versus if they do not?

I'm interested in making a list of the values we believe are necessary for blogging or are open questions to discuss in the Core Values of the Web session. I'll start it here:

1. transparency of relationships and motivations for writing and linking
2. transparency of identity, including pseudonymous writing
3. excellence of content—by which I mean writers honestly writing what they believe, even if it turns out to be untrue in the iterative process, versus publishing known untruths
4. editorial independence
5. linking for attribution of ideas

Please add to this list via comments below or bring ideas to the session Saturday.

Posted by Mary Hodder at November 4, 2004 08:33 AM | TrackBack

Very insightful Mary. You present an accurate and articulate overview of the situation presently at hand. I particularly enjoyed your analogies that went beyond pure good and pure evil (protestant work ethic, capitalism, etc.) as well as your examination of the secondary benefits to blogging -- I'd never considered "dates" as a secondary benefit.

Personally I take no compensation for my blog but I have the good fortune of having a day job that provides another source of significant income and thus have a certain degree of luxury and freedom with regards to my writing. This is not the case for everyone for sure. The themes of identity, transparency and pseudonymous writing also sound like roads worth traveling and examining.

As Bob Dylan says in his 115th dream:

"They asked me my name
And I said, "Captain Kidd"
They believed me but
They wanted to know
What exactly that I did
I said for the Pope of Eruke
I was employed
They let me go right away
They were very paranoid."

Posted by: Thomas Hawk at November 4, 2004 10:16 PM

The bottom line from a political standpoint is that the blogs, like much of the Internet has Liberal inclinations. They talk to themselves. They ignore what the "other guys" are saying.

They got beat in the election just completed by more than three million votes, the largest margin since 1964. Yet they persist in idas that the "rest" of the elctorate is ignorant or stupid and are so wrapped up in their own little world, while blogs remain only a small part of the real world, that they don't really have a clue what's going on.

Witness the Iowa caucases for the demos. Howard Dean supposedly had a massive lead, had obtain massive revenues online from contribtions, but the Iowa voters werent involved in that. In fact they were no where involved in the Dean campaign.

The rsult was that a traditional campaign with loyal volunteers out knocking on doors overcame rather easily the Dean "lead" and all the money he spent on TV was in vain. He finished third.

Those who live in the world of weblogs presently do not always, and often don't, have clue what's going on outside their blogs. And now the liberal blogs are crying in their beer trying to determine what went wrong and trying to plan for the future when, in fact, they likely won't make any changes from the past.

Politics requires food soldiers. They stuff envelopes and knock on doors. That seems beyong bloggers who, for the most part, are politically naive, not that they'd admit it. At present the world of weblogs is a largely artificial created for the well educated and liberals who, in general, have a distane for Mr. Farmer in South Dakota. Why? Because they don't have a clue what Mr. Farmer thinks or what his interests are.

Posted by: SteveoBrien at November 6, 2004 09:33 PM

The three million votes was NOT the largest since 1964 Clinton won the 1996 election by almost eight million votes.

Posted by: Jack Kendall at November 10, 2004 10:32 AM