On the Inevitable Commercialization of the ‘Sphere

29 Oct ’06

Much has been made in recent months about efforts by commercially-minded folk to hop on the social media bandwagon. Stealth corporate blogs, PayPerPost and other examples come to mind. Today Mathew cites another example of this issue: a cautionary tale that readers – in this case mothers looking for advice – need to be wary of the candour and honesty of the blogs they’re reading. The issue is troublesome because the ‘sphere’s appeal is fuelled at least in part by its authenticity – an authenticity that tends to be, um, lacking in much commercial speech, which is by nature oriented towards persuasion and advocacy.

There’s no question that this is at some level an interesting issue – even just the anthropology of the rapid evolution of a new form of media is reason to pull out the popcorn and grab a ringside seat (‘Hey, look – the world just changed!’). And I agree with Mathew that for bloggers this is a Catch 22 – working for ‘the man’ will in most corners of the ‘sphere dilute reader interest, and certainly faster if it’s covert. But I also think that a move away from the purity of pajamas media is simply inevitable – for the vast majority of people, writing for the heck of it won’t put food on the table, and the idea of a social revolution fuelled on the efforts of vast numbers of people who will do it all for love strikes me as simply unrealistic. It’s certainly a wonderful thought, and a nice hope to have for a new form of media, but sooner or later, the bills arrive at the door.

I also think that portrayal of the ‘sphere as exemplar of an authentic representation of anything – a portrayal we see in the ‘sphere all the time (indeed it’s probably the core mythology of the ‘sphere now) – is probably setting up a false dichotomy between a kinder, gentler and authentic now, and a more self-interested, for-profit and mercenary future. One way to think about authenticity, after all, is to think of it as an expression of honestly held opinion – an absence of the self-interest of commercial speech. Transparency, essentially. But most of the blogs I read are as remote from that meaning of authenticity as anything I read anywhere else. For example, many of them are written by people who have left BigSomething for whatever reason and who are now consultants. They have axes to grind about their previous lives, biases about their current world view to satisfy and opinions they’re trying to promote for their own or their clients’ commercial benefit. This is not a surprise, but it’s certainly not a community of people who are speaking authentically. Indeed, it’s often quite to the contrary. One can try to parse a writer’s words to come to an understanding of what lies below, but often not get there immediately, or at all.

Another example: much of what I read on the ‘sphere has been deliberately sensationalized by the writer for the purpose of attracting attention, obviously for the purpose of building a readership that can be monetized in some way. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this – other media do it all the time. No one writes not to be read. And if it bleeds it leads, after all. But this writing is hardly authentic, at least not in the sense of being honest presentations of an issue. This is a different kind of systemic bias, but nonetheless one that obfuscates ‘truth’. We’re accustomed to dealing with it and to deconstructing meaning in other contexts – for example, working backwards from the latest presentation of terror threat-this or pandemic-that on CNN to arrive at a more authentic presentation of an event – but it would be naive to think that the same challenges to authenticity are not present in pajamas media. They may even be more complex in the ‘sphere.

My point is that there’s an enormous amount of undisclosed self-interest in what we read everywhere, and the ‘sphere is no exception. A direct financial interest in the subject matter is perhaps the most visible example of a lack of ‘authenticity’, but I suspect that the real story is that other forms of self-interest are by nature even more covert and are collectively a much more powerful and pernicious example, and that given the inevitably of the ‘sphere’s commercialization, an example that should be attracting more attention than it does.

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