Brands are arbiters of quality on the Internet

June 29, 2009

Knowledge, news, music, opinion shall be free (as unfettered). That was the promise of the Internet, and bloggers were expected to deliver on that promise.

What followed was utter chaos, irresponsible reporting, plagiarizing without batting an eyelid, and an overload of information. The dark underbelly of society was showing on the Internet.

Wikipedia suddenly became less reliable. People very often edited entries on Wikipedia to suit their personal agendas, and the users’ only hope for accuracy is that some other guy got there before him and corrected the inaccuracy.

Folks, even bloggers, now need help to negotiate the labyrinth of the Internet to find information that is quotable and credible. Hence most bloggers now quote what are considered long-established credible sources, such as The New York Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal, and a few new online credible sources of information.

A lot has been written about Twitter. Like email when it started, Twitter is a great way to get the message out. But as spammers and frauds started using email, the message was increasingly questionable.

That is happening to Twitter as well……I don’t know who is my source of information on Twitter, whether he is reliable, whether he was at all in Iran while updating me on the youth unrest in that country after the elections.

Most of the time it is not hard core information I get on Twitter, but some vague reports from equally diffuse people on what they are eating now, how they are feeling at the moment, or what car they are driving.

Many times people themselves are filtering information to put them in a good light, or promote themselves. After all this is the age of personal brand building, and any channel is useful.

In 2007, I had written that although the Internet had made expression free, whether the expression was in the form of writing, art or music, there would still be needed gatekeepers to the Internet who would separate the wheat from the chaff.

See article titled ” Finding gold on the Net is a long shot”.

It was expected then that new brands would emerge to play counsellors and guides to Internet users. The “Long Tail” had created opportunities of all sorts of online purveyors of music, news, and other forms of art, by lowering the cost of inventory, distribution, and marketing.

But the gold rush to the Internet left people gasping for some guidance on how to avoid the trash. Already they were suffering from clutter and information overload.

eMusic, for example, focused on the “Long Tail”, and tried to build a music download brand around that. Leading newspapers set up blogs aiming to be arbiters of quality in both formal news reporting, and the more informal world of blogs.

The upshot is that a mix of new and old brands have emerged as gatekeepers to the Internet. That makes navigating the Internet for quality and reliable stuff more reliable.

But to a large extent it has also robbed the Internet of its fierce democracy. Once again the big brands – a few – will decide what goes through its filters. Once again smaller purveyors of content will have to kow-tow to the big brands or go unnoticed, and end up in some corner on YouTube.

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Corrupt bloggers: part of the dark underbelly of the Internet

October 6, 2007

Blogs and bloggers have always been romanticized as the ultimate example of freedom of expression. Citizen journalists, with fire in their belly, were expected to give their own unique perspective on events, new information that the traditional media had missed out, and a freshness of outlook and analysis. Information, we were told, would be really free, both as in unpriced and uncontrolled.

Unfortunately some corrupt bloggers are quickly turning that dream to dust. Some bloggers are putting up content on their blog posts up for sale to the corporate sector and other buyers. Their line: pay me and I will put up your news release.

Marketing communications managers in companies currently budget payments to bloggers that, depending on the popularity of the blogs, range from hefty checks to not-so-hefty checks, or even just a meal at an expensive restaurant.

“Soon after we issue a press release or make a product announcement, there are a large number of bloggers calling to discuss payments for running the story on their blogs”, said the communications manager of a leading multinational Internet company.

Why do companies pay ? Blogs are competing as news sources for the public because of their viral nature and quicker time to getting a story online. A good report helps a company, as it goes that much further, and more quickly, across cyberspace. By the same token if one of the more popular blogs ignores the news or publishes a competitor’s news item, the company that didn’t pay up stands to lose.

Bloggers are quickly realizing their importance, and some of them now demand that they be invited for press conferences, media briefings, and even company-paid junkets to exotic locations.

In an earlier posting, I had quoted Google Inc.’s president and chief Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf as saying that the Internet is a mirror to the population that uses it. “When you have a problem in the mirror you do not fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror”, Cerf said while rejecting regulation of the Internet.

The dark under-belly of society has moved to the Internet, but now more powerful, more viral because of the reach, and anonymity that the Internet offers.

There have been many instances through the decades of some small town journalists and publishers, and even some big city journalists and publishers, corrupted by handouts from politicians and companies. I knew a publisher who brought out his newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000 every time a company or a political party had an axes to grind through his newspaper.

But for these few black sheep, there are solid doyens of journalism, both publishers and journalists, committed to delivering to the reader a great, interesting, and accurate story.

This pattern too will likely emerge on the Internet, but the numbers are so many, that separating the wheat from the chaff is an impossible task for readers online. And there are more news and commentary blogs and product review blogs getting added each day. That is because the barriers to entry to becoming a purveyor of news and opinions has come crashing down.

If in the old days you needed to have a degree in journalism, and required an appreciation of the finer points and the ethics of the profession before you were credible, now anybody with an Internet account and access to a blog hosting site can set up a news blog.

Citizen journalism therefore is fraught with danger. I am worried not only of citizen journalism promoting corporate interests, but of citizen journalism promoting political interests, promoting disharmony between religions, at a price. Aggrieved folks may sometimes be able to slap the blog with a “cease and desist”, but the problem with such orders is that by the time your lawyer has finished drafting it out, various versions of the story may be on hundreds, nay a million other blogs.

My guess is that a confused public will eventually go back to their traditional gatekeepers of the news, like online editions of some of the established newspapers, and narrow down to a few blogs they have thoroughly vetted for quality. But until then it will be corruption and chaos in the blogosphere.

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