Flogging the Market

Ever since Wal-Mart and PR firm Edelman were exposed for their shenanigans involving two fake blogs (Wal-Marting Across America and Exposing the Paid Critics, the blogosphere has been up in arms about fake blogs (or “flogs,” as one writer calls them). The exposure of these supposedly grassroots efforts has put a whole lot of egg on both Wal-Mart’s and Edelman’s faces.

Should we care? After all, blogs written by PR flacks masquerading as someone (or something) else have been around for a while now. Some, like Moosetopia are dumb but harmless (and transparent) exercises in character blogging. Others, such as Delicious Destinations and Betterthanbeer, are a little harder to peg as commercial products (though the age check on Betterthanbeer is a good indicator).

There’s also been a fair amount of flogging going on in politics, too, probably more than we realize. The practice of “astroturf” — fake grass-roots activism paid for by institutional interests — has been going on for a while, but the open nature of blogs (and the fact that determining authenticity online is pretty difficult for the average person) has lead to an explosion in using blog posts (or comments to blogs) to push various political agendas.

Overall, flogging appears to be a common practice. But is it a good one? Based on the overall reaction and general negative publicity, it doesn’t appear so.

Of course, I don’t doubt both firms will weather the bad press without too much long-term damage. The biggest problem, however, isn’t what these kinds of revelations will do to Wal-Mart and Edelman. The biggest problem is what they’ll do to the overall credibility of online communications.

The public is nervous enough about the medium. After a brief honeymoon with new technology, people are starting to realize digital media are easily manipulated and reality just ain’t what it used to be. Revelations like the Wal-Mart scandal and the Mark Foley fiasco, nervousness over MySpace, and ongoing fearmongering about identity theft, viruses, and spam make an already nervous public even more so.

The biggest problem with fake blogs and similar tricks is they add more fuel to the fire when it comes to the overall Internet brand. Thinking of the Internet as having a brand may seem odd, but if you consider brand as the emotional response people have to an institution, it makes sense. The Internet’s brand overlays everything we do online, so any blow to the Internet’s brand is a blow to all of us.

Will people stop using the Internet because of a few dirty tricks? Not likely. But they will think twice when reading blogs, shopping online, or trusting the information they get from our sites. And that makes our jobs more difficult.

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