Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW
The blogger watchdogs will probably not be issued outfits like this.
A few weeks back, AdAge columnist Simon Dumenco announced the formation of something called the "Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation." The idea was widely discussed, by myself among others. Now Dumenco has provided some reaction to the debate CEBA inspired — and kindly linked to my post. Although I should point out that I wasn't doing anything all that "unexpected," just blogging about blogging. We do blog out here in L.A., when we aren't surfing and eating the greatest sushi in all the land.
In any case, Dumenco reacted by creating a short Q&A. Here's a taste:
Q. So this is the Blog Police, right?
A. Oh, yeah, absolutely. The 30-plus members of CEBA (so far; we'll announce a full list next month) -- including Cyndi Stivers, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review; Sheryl Huggins Salomon, managing editor of The Root; Evan Hansen, editor-in-chief of Wired.com; Dan Okrent, former New York Times public editor -- will be equipped with pepper-spray canisters and will be authorized to spritz disobedient bloggers in the face, point-blank, U.C. Davis-style. Especially Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.
I kid, HamNo! I kid because I love! Seriously, I couldn't have asked for a more deliciously bitchy response than your March 12 post titled "We Don't Need No Stinking Seal of Approval from the Blog Police" (which pretty much totally missed the point but was a classically entertaining HamNo read).
"Look," Nolan wrote, "what Dumenco is trying to do is simply to codify 'how to blog without being a huge [deleted]' guidelines that all decent online writers already know." He specified some—"give credit to sources of information, link back, don't blockquote to a ridiculous degree" -- and then concluded that "everyone who cares about not being a [deleted] already does these things, or tries to do them, and, if notified of not doing them, should correct them" and that for "writers who don't care about this issue, such a group [CEBA] will have no influence. Therefore such a group is worthless."
Nolan is actually wrong about this. It's understandable, given that he writes for Gawker, which is still vestigially connected to what I think of as The World That Blogging Was — a reaction to both the dotcom meltdown, which killed or curtailed a lot of early, proto-bloggy writing in the early 2000s, driving already ethical online journos into the blogsphere; and at root a "boutique" blog that's much more closely related to the traditional media it routinely jeers than the newer media, which have ignored old media in pursuit of an aggressive growth strategy.
I've been calling this state of affairs "The End of the Blogging as We Knew It," with apologies to R.E.M. In this context, Dumenco's initiative is urgently needed. It's my hope that we're not simply looking at a "codification" of what a mature generation of bloggers already understands. I'd rather see CEBA foreground the key issues that blogging faces as it becomes more widely incorporated into media.
There's a tension here, expressed by the name that Dumenco chose for CEBA: you've got "blogging" and "aggregation" in there together. I'd argue that there are many, many instances when the two have nothing to do with each other. In fact, the aggregation part, far more than the blogging aspect, tends to enrage the establishment. Exhibit A: former New York Times editor Bill Keller's March 2011 jeremiad:
“Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.
Keller infamously tarred the Huffington Post — and even specifically Arianna Huffington — for this practice. Coincidentally, Dumenco was provoked to convene CEBA due to a perceived bout of unethical aggregation of his work by the HuffPo.
Blogging can be a business — Gawker Media has certainly demonstrated that — but aggregation is the basis of a business. Just stay on top of Google and perform some deft search optimization and you may very will watch the page views climb toward the heavens and witness the ad dollars (or venture funding) fall from the sky.
As Keller noted, aggregation can be smart. But smart aggregation can be a speed bump, a needless business restriction. It's a lot like...runaway financial innovation. Left unchecked, this leads to catastrophic crises. But if properly regulated, it can leverage an economy's advantages. Ditto a website.
Dumenco is clearly having some fun with all this, but he's put his finger on something. And it's about time somebody did, because the media has been so thoroughly disrupted over the past decade that it's getting very difficult for even experienced professionals to keep up.
So there might be an edge of silliness to CEBA. But there's also a need to raise this debate to higher level.