The Internet is Serious Business

Filipino bloggers may soon be as compromised as the mainstream media they’re supposed to replace

A new breed of writer is pounding traditional news beats. They are bloggers; not bound by the limits of column space, the stodgy ethics of journalism, or even the strictures of grammar. And they are giving the mainstream press a run for their readership, and therefore, their money.

Mainstream media reporters have to send their story briefs to their news desks, write under deadline, and hope that their paper has enough space for even just a blurb in one of the inside pages. A normal day at the office for them, but an iffy proposition for PR firms and publicity people.

Bloggers, on the other hand, are usually their own editors, can devote as much space on their blogs as they want, and can potentially reach more people. “Some blogs have more readers than some of the biggest magazines here in the country,” Carlo Ople, an Internet marketing specialist, says.

He says consumers see marketing through blogs as more credible than traditional forms of advertising. It is easier, after all, to believe in a glowing review from a work-at-home mother than an actor paid for his endorsement. It is cheaper, too, considering the potential reach.

Arvin Ello, a blogger who attends corporate events, says marketing through blogs is more effective because it’s faster and can go viral—that is, spread through online social networks. With some 25 million Filipinos online by the end of 2010, one viral campaign could make a brand.

But much like the mainstream press, blogs live and die on their reputations. Ople says blogs are successful at marketing because they are sources readers trust. It follows, then, that bloggers are supposed to play fair. Ello, for example, says that he won’t write about a product that he doesn’t believe in.

This is not the case for everyone. Bloggers can sing praises of the slimming effects of food supplements mixed into a brand of fruit juice even without losing weight. Skinny bloggers have also made the same claim; all for the prize in a juice company’s blog contest.

The prize in a photo blog contest could go not to the fairest, but to the blogger who gets the most votes on the contest’s website. Voting generates page visits and buzz, making a contestant who aggressively campaigns on his social network more valuable than one who shoots great pictures.

This is all according to the rules but can ruffle feathers, and in the Philippine blog community, feathers are always being ruffled.

It is inaccurate to even call it a community. The Philippine blogosphere is filled with cliques and factions and is plagued by internecine fighting. Filipino Voices (FV), a network of political pundits and analysts spawned a rival Unmoderated Filipino Voices (UFV) to supposedly counter political biases in FV. UFV has since morphed into Anti-Pinoy and is at war with Barrio Siete (B7), a web community that promises “Imbalanced News. Biased Views.”

Rivalries are not just along political lines, either. A group of volunteers that runs the Philippine Blog Awards has been repeatedly accused of letting their friends win.

B7’s Reyna Elena, a US-based accountant, has openly disagreed with how winners are picked. He has taken exception to a rule requiring blog writers submit what they consider their best posts.

He says that Philippine Blog Awards judges should pore through thousands of posts to find the best blog entries for the year. But organizers say this would take too much time for a thankless job.

Reyna Elena is not alone, losers in the gaming blog category sponsored by a local gaming company Level Up! claimed the winner was chosen for sucking up to the sponsor . This sparked an online comment war that raged for more than a year.

PBA volunteers have denied the accusations but the credibility of the awards has already been tainted.

Reyna Elena has also been very critical of Janette Toral, a blogger who holds a yearly listing of the top 10 emerging influential blogs in the Philippines. He has accused Toral of using the contest to promote herself, and takes exception to how a group of students boosted their rankings by voting for each others’ blogs. But Toral says there is nothing wrong with that. Influence, she says, means getting readers to vote and campaign for you.

Scandals and bickering between online cliques not only affect credibility, they also limit the number of people blogs can reach.

And then, there are the accusations of being paid hacks. Ello is often asked if he is paid to feature products on his website. He says he is not, but it is not unthinkable that many bloggers are. Toral, for example, runs a network of bloggers who are paid for their posts. With thousands of blogs out to get a piece of the PR pie (to be fair, there are also thousands who are not), the emphasis could soon be on ad revenue than on content.

This does not do bloggers any favors. Paolo Manalo, a Palanca awardee who taught a course on blogging at the UP College of Arts and Letters, says emphasis is shifting to using the right keywords to make a blog more likely to appear in a Google search. Because people still read blogs for content, marketing through a poorly written but Google-friendly site could turn readers off and damage a brand.

For all the hype that surrounds bloggers and citizen journalists, it is sometimes hard to take them seriously. At a press event for open source software company Red Hat earlier this year, there was awkward silence after one blogger asked the company’s regional vice president to tell her what open source software is. At the same table, some bloggers were doing incredibly last minute research on Wikipedia.

As tedious as corporate events sometimes are, reporters who cover them are there because it’s their job. Bloggers, on the other hand, have no real reason to be there except their own interest. Getting paid to write favorably about a product and not telling readers about it puts the credibility of any writer in doubt. Being paid and doing your job half assed by not knowing anything about something you’re supposed to be passionate about does that too.

Working reporters have a term for people like that, hao siao, Mandarin for ‘good joke’. And to be accused of being one can lead to heated words and fisticuffs.

They are also sometimes called the December media for only showing up for the tokens and parties that politicians usually give at Christmas. If bloggers don’t watch themselves, they may find themselves regarded by as much derision.

Ello says that there has been talk of accrediting bloggers and giving them ID cards to give them equal footing with the mainstream press. But this is downright silly. Creating a blog takes as little as five minutes and there are already thousands of them online. Defining criteria for accreditation and then screening all these websites is an impossible task. Even just creating a registry of all the bloggers in the Philippines will be a job that never ends. Doing so will also take away the last thing that sets bloggers apart from the mainstream media.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said that any form of media has the power to enhance. In this case, it enhances writing and gives writers an alternative way to get published. It also threatens to render another form of media obsolete, the mainstream press.

But taken to extremes, McLuhan says, the new media form reverses its characteristics. Instead of being an alternative to the mainstream press with its supposed biases and agendas, bloggers may soon find themselves a paler and even more poorly paid version of it.

(A shorter version of this piece was published in the June 2010 issue of China Business Philippines)

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4 responses to “The Internet is Serious Business

  1. Hi Jonathan. Interesting piece here. Definitely, there are now bloggers who accepts writing assignments similar to how freelance writers used to do it (where an objective is given and met). Except it gets published in their respective blog and be written in the manner of their preference (not advertorial).

    As to how the Internet business will evolve, it is uncertain. But definitely, will not underestimate newbies as I have seen several of them become better overtime.
    (Have written a piece about that on the politics of blogging at my bloggingfromhome site).

  2. Hi, ma’am

    I get where they’re coming from. Everyone has to make money somehow but there should be some sort of disclosure when they’re paid to feature products and events.

    Also, if they’re getting paid to write, they should at least do some background research before the actual event. There have been complaints that people don’t take bloggers seriously and being professional about being a professional blogger will help them get the credibility that they ask for.

    What do you mean by ‘not advertorial’? What’s the difference between an advertorial and getting paid to feature something? (I really don’t know.)

  3. B7′s Reyna Elena, a US-based accountant, took the cudgels for a gaming blog that he felt deserved the win in 2008.

    Correction. That post was in relation to issues between him and Jester-in-Exile and not because he felt that we at GameOPS deserved to win. Also, Reyna Elena has other issues with PBA 🙂

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