Personal Blogging Ethics

Personal blogging is a grey area between personal transparency and the anonymity of cyberspace through a social networking tool.  When blogging first started, people could share a lot of personal information without worrying that the wrong person would read their blog and know it was them.  Now with social networking, it is becoming very difficult for bloggers to stay anonymous while writing for a popular blog.  Usernames, e-mail addresses, and online images leave a trail and anyone with a little time on their hands can put together a complete report on someone, which means it isn’t very hard for companies to figure out who is writing about them, especially if the blogger works for them.

Do personal bloggers need a code of ethics with the way that social networking ties people to their online ‘paper’ trail?  I think they do, because personal blogging has become more than just sharing information, it has become a way to earn extra money, to gain a reputation as an expert on a topic, and influence people.  Responsible blogging doesn’t mean that free speech should be limited, but does mean that an individual should take responsibility for his or her actions and give readers a chance to make their own decision about a blogger’s personal ethics and integrity (Cyberjounalist).

A reader should know whether a writer is a personal blogger, someone  who writes blogs for free, or if the blog is from a company, or if the blogger gets compensation from companies, either from free samples, ads or commissions.    Another question is how to know if someone is an expert or not, because anyone can offer an opinion in cyberspace, but it is harder to pin down whether a person has experience, training or the education to write about a topic.  One benefit about blogging is the ability to be anonymous, which allows people to be more honest if they want to, but how can people verify a blogger’s integrity without compromising privacy or free speech? There is no blogger code of ethics, and there is no governing body to regulate what people say or do online in the United State (at least not yet), because of free speech.

In the past, bloggers shared information about themselves, but didn’t always have a resume or a list of work that they have done in the past.  Today’s bloggers are more transparent, and share twitter, contact information, resumes, portfolios, education, and social networking links in order to show their integrity and give readers a reason to trust them.  The ethics behind each blogger are in question because because not everyone is blogging for personal gain, some are sharing because they enjoy sharing knowledge, and while doing this, they increase their own expertise.  Others have a passion for a topic, and end up writing for online outlets because they have the knowledge and expertise to draw in readers. As a blog’s readership grows, the cost for blogging goes up, because it takes time to write posts and if the blog is hosted by the writer, the costs to maintain a blog (hosting, bandwidth, domain) can become prohibitive.  This is typically where a blogger has to choose to either a) shut down the blog because the blogger can’t afford to maintain the site or b) integrate ads into the website.

The problem with integrating ads is that some readers feel it compromises the integrity of the blogger, who might have to compromise on what they write about or even modify their layout to accommodate ads, which are typically ignored by most Net Gen readers, who are used to seeing ads everywhere.  The issue also comes from the premise of a personal blog, which is a personal account of a blogger, written on a regular basis.  In the case of a review blog, the blogger is sharing his or her personal experience with a product and giving an opinion on whether it is good or not based on the blogger’s set of requirements.  In the past, people would buy an item, blog about it, then open the post for discussion with his or her readers.  The best review blogs include a thorough review, how much it cost and where to find it.  The problem with this process is that there was an assumption that the blogger didn’t a) work for the company that the product came from, b) that the blogger bought the product themselves and c) that the blogger was a person, not a marketing team.

Companies are realizing the potential in personal blogging, because people feel a connection between the blogger and the readers, which builds trust.  Some bloggers work as consultants because of the trust and expertise they have gained while blogging, while others write columns, blog or produce podcasts for magazines, newspapers and radio.  Many of my favorite blogs are now sponsored by companies (through free samples for review or ad revenue), because these blogs have a dedicated set of readers who are interested in a specific topic (or product).  Ideally it is a good match, reviewing products is expensive, but at the same time, there is a grey area because what happens if a blogger has to review an item that isn’t good?

Google search has opened to the Internet to people seeking information, and companies know that good online reviews sell products.  The Net Geners search for information online, looking for information about a product, reading the opinions of other people who have tried the product in a forum and reading blogs about the product.  The connection between a blogger and his or her readers creates trust, and people are starting to listen to what they have to say because it’s supposed to be an honest appraisal.  If a person doesn’t like a product because it breaks down too quickly, or if people realize that there is a bigger issue needing a recall, that information spreads quickly through shared links, social networking and tweeting.   The social networking system is efficient at spreading information, but companies want to have more of a control over any bad news, so they hire companies that track their products and notify them if their products are trending (in either good or bad ways).  Even the smallest blog can be affected by this tracking, and there have been instances where a company will help a blogger with their issues so that the blogger can update the negative post with information on how the company cared enough to make everything right.  On one side I believe that a company should make things right for someone who is having a negative customer service experience, but at the same time, I wonder if the readership and the potential of starting a negative trend is the compelling reason to help bloggers.

The beauty industry is billion dollar industry, with many competing brands who want to capture the market share for their product line.  One blog I read regularly, All Lacquered Up is an example of how a woman with a love for nail polish ended up writing a popular nail polish review blog.  The blog grew to the point that she is now being asked for commentary (with regards to nails) in other online publications, got to create her own nail color, gets invitations to industry events,  and receives free samples for reviews.  Her success was in part due to her methodical swatches and honest reviews of the products she owned, and people seemed to relate to her writing style.  This type of success is not typical, it requires a lot of work and even then there are many nail polish review sites out there that are abandoned by bloggers who tired of the blogging lifestyle (or blogging for a living).

Blogging for a living is not just limited to review blogs, or to personal blogs, there are many writers and reporters who write blogs as a way to connect the different generations to television, radio, newspaper and magazines (VanFossen).  A baby boomer is used to getting information from hard copy, like a delivered newspaper or buying the latest lifestyle magazine at the grocery checkout, but Net Geners prefer using their ubiquitous devices to get their information, which means that medium of entertainment is changing, and companies must find new ways to connect to their readers (and gain new ones).  Blogging is one way companies can share information with a new audience, and build a personal bond between Net Geners and their products.  That personal bond is based on trust, and in some cases, companies have lost credibility by not understanding the blogging medium.

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