Since the FTC released it’s guidelines for blog reviewers, I’ve been trying to coalesce my reaction and explain why I’m so irritated. The reaction to this post will likely be that I’m arguing against transparency. I’m not. I’m quite in favor of it.
What I am against is whining.
Since the FTC guidelines were released, I’ve heard and read several versions of the following statement on many, many sites and from many people: “I think this is a great idea. I can’t understand why you’re disinclined towards transparency. Shame shame! I myself have been burned by bloggers not disclosing the source of the product they were reviewing!”
Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1842, “My old Father used to have a saying: If you make a bad bargain, hug it all the tighter.” Still true, but I’d say instead: “Put on your big girl panties, quit whining, and get over it.”
What the FTC is attempting to do is enforce a method of curation by mandating disclosure, and subjecting only a portion of the reviewers publishing currently to its guidelines. While the FTC guidelines make me all kinds of irritated, it’s the response and the questions of curation and double standards that really tick me off.
Whether trusted sources come from the bottom up or the top down is still up for debate. Chris Kimball wrote about this topic in the New York Times this past week, though he was talking about the demise of Gourmet and the rise of the online user-built database of recipes. Kimball is the founder of Cook’s Illustrated, and host of one of Hubby’s and my favorite cooking shows, “Cooks Country,” and its predecessor, “America’s Test Kitchen.” We also think he’s a sanctimonious douchenozzle, and very much assured of his own superiority. However, his company’s recipes are excellent. He writes:
The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.
Key point: “their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers.”
By whom? By their readers, I presume.
Side note: Kimball’s recipes are the result of expertise on the part of the chefs in his kitchen team compiling an aggregate of recipes for a particular food, testing and then making their recommendation for the best one. But I didn’t start buying the Test Kitchen cookbooks until they consistently produced recipes I used over and over and therefore justified my expenditure. I had to verify that their tastes matched mine, and even now I read their magazines to look for specific names, knowing those cooks have similar preferences to mine. My point: they are curating, and I’m curating, but somehow the published curation by an expert, instead of the additional curation by the person using the recipe at hand, in Kimball’s perspective, is better. I disagree.
The evaluation and selection by the reader on her own subjective analysis makes much more sense to me, especially when I can comprehend their subjective rubric of the original critic.
This curation done by the reader is echoed in Jeff Bercovici’s examination of the FTC regulations at DailyFinance.com:
It may be there are some unsophisticated consumers out there who can’t tell genuine criticism from sponsored flackery and who have spent money on shoddy products because of it. So be it. The Constitution doesn’t empower the government to protect people from their own stupidity. It does, however, guarantee the right to free speech.
This concept was embraced the day the FTC released it’s 86 page recommendation on Twitter in 140 or less by Shannon Stacey:
Dear government: No amount of legislation can protect stupid people from themselves. Also, not your job.
Aside from the nebulous boundaries of the FTC guidelines, and the fact that they spend much of the document talking about high ticket items but make no provisions for the potential of a $11,000.00 fine potentially being leveled at a blogger who wrote about a $7.99 paperback, my biggest frustration has been the reaction that draws inaccurate parallels. By protesting the extremely broad scope and the nebulous limitations in price point, those against the guidelines are somehow trying to obfuscate their evil, nefarious agenda.
Let me be clear here: you are responsible for your decisions. When you decide to take a recommendation, and it doesn’t work out for you, you bear some to all of the responsibility. I refuse to have responsibility enforced against me because I can’t remember the provenance of a book I received bought borrowed or stole from the library when I was 15, and that lack of memory in some way colors the ethics and value of my review. In my interpretation, the FTC’s regulations are attempting to shift the responsibility off of the consumer, who needs to caveat her mother fucking emptor in a big damn hurry, and on to me, in what I see as a big slap to free speech.
The “thoughtful experience” Kimball writes about regarding Gourmet magazine applies to book bloggers as well. You, the user, the shopper, the reader, have to decide whether you think my or anyone else’s experience is meaningful to you. You are responsible for evaluating your sources and deciding what you are willing to pay for, whether it’s a book, a dvd player, a car or a freaking island. Whether you decide to trust Consumer Reports or a blogger who works at a car dealership and won’t reveal his name for fear of getting fired, YOU are responsible for vetting your sources as they influence your decisions. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m as full of shit as anybody.
What are you willing to pay for? Are you going to trust content you have to pay for online? Or do you prefer content that is free? And if it’s free, are you ok with knowing that the content that is free may be supported by a paid or unpaid writer producing that content?
As bloggers, our only currency is our credibility. To be a successful blogger, you need credibility, consistency, and authenticity. Hypothetically speaking, if a blogger you read regularly begins reviewing products that you didn’t think he or she could afford without saying how she ended up with a $600 stand mixer, would you be suspicious? If a blogger whose site you adore begins to reveal that the entire premise of her site is based on an outright lie, do you stop reading?
If you do your homework, which is to say, if you read a site consistently, or follow a particular reviewer consistently, you can get a sense of what tastes you have in common, and what things you disagree on. You get a sense of their rubric – in other words: what makes an A book for them, and what makes a big ol’ stankin’ F.
What makes me the most angry is that, for many people, myself included, that same credibility must be established for print reviewers as well: they have to demonstrate experience and expertise in order for people to trust that review. They may have a slight advantage because a major publication hired them, but if someone is serious about the product being reviewed, “Take my word for it, I work for The Giant Newspaper Times” is not credential enough. I’m not alone in that assessment, either.
Markos Moulitsas, better known as the Kos of “Daily Kos” weighed in on the FTC regulations and called them on their double standard of media disclosure:
And most people reading reviews expect that companies send out review copies. If I read a video game review site, I assume that video game companies send out review copies (and anyone who reads those sites know, not all games get good reviews). If I read a gadget site, I expect that gadget manufacturers sent review copies to those sites for review. If I read a car site, I assume that car companies loaned out cars (along with insurance) to the reviewers.And yes, if I read a book site, or political site discussing political books, I assume those sites received review copies.
Here’s what I don’t expect—that every writer at a newspaper or magazine gets paid to write. In fact, the smaller the publication, the less I expect that.
That right there is why the internet is my favorite place: the USER is her own gatekeeper. No one’s stopping you from blogging. No one is stopping you from writing. Therefore, no one is responsible for your decision to read or not to read, to buy or not to buy. You can read whatever you want – and regardless of the obscurity of your interest, I promise someone on the internet shares it. But you are responsible for determining whether to believe your source, particularly when you’re demonstrating your belief in that source with your wallet, whether it’s a $8 paperback or an $80,000.00 car.
Kimball writes in the Op-Ed piece:
To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice.
Right back atcha, Chris. To survive, those of us who have worked for months or years to establish our credibility and have left a written archive of our experience need to swim against the tide, too, to continue to define our own brands without the masthead of a print publication above or beneath us, to prove our worth as sources who are not out to fleece consumers of their money or paid media outlets of their profits, and whether or not we are paid for what we do, we have an equal voice, with equal value and potential influence. We should not be subject to broad, unfair, and poorly defined guidelines that do not affect other media outlets but that do threaten consequences against everyone writing online reviews. When the FTC’s target represents only a small portion of the reviewers writing today and the guidelines meant to curb them threaten us all, there’s something seriously, hideously wrong.