Dvorak: Attempts to Manipulate Blogosphere Will Always Backfire

As we approach the 2008 elections, the blogosphere — that vague and nebulous online cross-chatter that nobody fully understands — will be the target of politicians, PR hacks, connivers, and special-interest groups.

Each time an attempt is made to exploit the bloggers and their world, it will backfire. In fact, it will turn into a comedy.

Let's start with an example of how not to do things right, with a recent attempt by Microsoft to co-opt the bloggers.

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What's interesting in all of this is that the bloggers seem more than amenable to being co-opted, until the chorus starts to chime in. Then they move on to the next thing.

Back in December, Microsoft decided to give a slew of bloggers a free laptop with Windows Vista installed. It was an [expensive, sleek] Acer Ferrari.

Apparently, the company gave away dozens, and it seems that the laptops were given to people who had been blogging a lot about Microsoft and in a positive manner.

In fact, most bloggers are not professional critics (or even amateur critics, for that matter), and they tend to jump for joy over everything. They are obviously taking their cue from today's clueless reporters, who regurgitate PR fluff and call it news.

So these bloggers boost whatever they run into with accolades, thus mimicking the pros. Ah, sweet.

Their reward is a free laptop. And then, of course, the recipients show their incredible gratitude by publicly thanking Microsoft. This blogger, for example, is pleased as punch over what he perceives as a tribute to his skills.

Since these bloggers are not bound by any specific ethical code about this sort of thing, most glommed onto the machines and blogged about it.

I don't think it's because they care about disclosure (some do) but because they were merely bragging. "Look what I got!"

This, of course, set into motion the "Hey, why didn't I get a laptop, too? I have more readers and I brown-nose Microsoft even more" bitterness.

One thing led to another. It was claimed that this was part of some review process, which it wasn't, and a mini-scandal ensued and abated.

Would I trust anything any of these people ever to write about Microsoft from now on? Maybe. Maybe not. I'll certainly be more wary than before. That's the problem this sort of thing creates.

You should note that bloggers are not bound by any ethical guidelines, period. And — you'll like this twist — why should they be?

These guidelines promoted by The New York Times and other papers have done nothing to improve news in America. Nothing. Just the opposite has happened. But I digress.

The fact is that each blogger should have his or her own transparent standard, and the reader should be the one dealing with it. Über-blogger Robert Scoble actually worked for Microsoft while blogging and remained credible even though he was on the company's direct payroll!

That said, I do not recommend the practice.

I, for one, do not foresee corruption attempts working out for one simple reason: There are too many bloggers who would have to be paid off to make corruption work.

It's far easier to corrupt Big Media. You just work on the guy at the top and he tells the underlings what to do. It's easier to do and harder to isolate.

These bloggers were all too happy to reveal the fact that they got a bribe, er, gift, er, loaner from Microsoft. Whatever scheme was afoot fell apart and just showed that Microsoft is still up to its dirty tricks. Now we know.

This new reality will take corporations and politicians some time to digest. While many bloggers seem eagerly corruptible — almost inviting it — it's not going to make any difference because there will be 10 to 100 bloggers pointing the finger at them and another 1,000 analyzing the finger-pointing.

The net result is going to be beyond disclosure and into the realm of philosophical discussion. It will be quite entertaining at times. I'm sure of it.

This situation has to be incredibly baffling to the politicos who need to use the bloggers the way they use Big Media, but there are no skilled players in the PR world who have any idea about how to do this.

The Microsoft experts are a prime example. In fact, I'm not sure it can be done, since the mechanism of public blogging is almost incorruptible by design.

But even if the system can be cracked, we probably won't notice it.

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