Dave Balter apologises

Both on the BzzAgents blog and in my comments, as well as privately by email, Dave Balter has apologised for calling me and Corante liars. As he has publicly apologised I will publicly accept his apology. Some may not be pleased with me for doing so, but I am prepared to believe that calling me a liar was a mistake made in the heat of the moment. I have nothing personal against Dave, and turning this into a slanging match is not my desire or intent, because it obscures what’s really important and that’s the raft of problems that I and others have with BzzAgent’s modus operandi and this proposed relationship with Creative Commons.

Dave has also written an open letter to Lawrence Lessig about the matter, and you will find many interesting and well written comments on both his response and the issues in general over on Larry’s blog. I still have a number of serious problems with BzzAgents – in fact, I have more now than I did on Saturday morning – but as most of them have been so well addressed there, I see no benefit in rehashing them here. Instead, I will advise you to go and read the whole thread from top to bottom, if you haven’t already.

In the version of his apology that appears on his blog, Dave does ask for suggestions for how to improve his business, and my advice to him would be the same as that which I would give to an aspiring writer: murder your darlings. As F Scott Fitzgerald realised, the aspects of your work which are most dear to you are frequently the bits that need cutting out, for the good of the whole. These are also the bits that you fight hardest to keep because these are your darlings, your flashes of genius, your best work. Trouble is, your ‘flashes of genius’ are actually more likely to be a steaming heap of crud, but you just can’t see it.

Dave reacted very much like inexperienced writers do when they receive their first critical review. Their first reaction is denial: this criticism can’t be true. Their second is anger: you must be an idiot not to see how great my work is. If they are lucky, their third reaction is acceptance and growth: I see where I went wrong and I will work on improving it.

From the comments on Larry’s blog, which numbered 78 the last time I looked, it seems clear that the majority of people think Dave’s business model is flawed and that his BzzAgents’ modus operandi is at the very least bordering on unethical and immoral. Dave encourages us to ‘dig deeper’ to find out what’s going on ‘under the hood’, but misses two important points:

1) If people’s initial perceptions of BzzAgents are so negative, then you have a serious problem with communicating what you are really doing.

2) If people’s informed opinion of BzzAgents is so negative, then you have a serious problem with the way you are running your business.

Maybe, Dave, you need to murder your darlings. This business is your ‘baby’ and as such you cherish it. But maybe your basic premise is wrong. Maybe you need to stop the activities that are being perceived as shilling, reassess the way that your promotional campaigns are constructed, and stop encouraging people to manipulate the conversations they are having in order that they might create an opportunity to toss up some verbal spam.

Don’t just write off negative comments as being valueless because they are from people who ‘don’t understand’ – that’s the oldest trick in the sulky teenager’s book. Try instead to understand how your business looks from the outside, find out what it is that people object to, and how best to address those problems. Then take visible steps to correct what’s wrong, accepting and fairly assessing feedback along the way.

Apparently I am a liar

I’d like to reproduce for you here a post written by Dave Balter, founder of BzzAgents, on ths BzzAgents blog, which is in response to my post expressing unhappiness at Creative Common’s new pro bono relationship with BzzAgents.

Bloggers as Liars

Saturday, April 30 2005 @ 10:57 AM CDT

Contributed by: Dave Balter

I really wonder.

Whenever I talk to people about BzzAgent, give a speech or work with clients, they invariably ask us about Blogs. They want to know how BzzAgents can influence bloggers. How much of a role blogging has in word-of-mouth.

Let’s get this straight: Over 80% of word of mouth occurs OFFLINE. Blogs are a tool for word-of-mouth interaction, but just because there’s plenty of them out there, it doesn’t mean it’s the best place for distributing an honest opinion.

Which brings me to point two. Bloggers are destroying their own medium.

How? By being more critics and pundits than journalists. The problem is that there are no editors and no fact checkers, so plenty of what you read on blogs is just plain untrue. Check out Suw Charman’s Corante post on BzzAgent’s Partnership with Creative Commons, where she misstates nearly a dozen facts. And much of what she says is also pulled from other blogs. Guess what? Her informants are providing false information, too. A vicious cycle of lies.

With this type of reporting (whining?), it’s no wonder many consumers are going back to reading fact-checked business magazines.

How long until consumers hold bloggers up to the same standards of truth as they’d expect from word-of-mouth interactions?


It seems Dave has a few misconceptions.

Firstly, this is a metablog – I blog about blogging. That’s why I talk about BzzAgent bloggers. But Dave’s assertion that 80% of word of mouth happens offline doesn’t change a thing – BzzAgent are still rewarding people for saying stuff that perhaps they wouldn’t say otherwise, good or bad. Regardless of medium, this is still dressing up advertising as conversation.

Bloggers vs. journalists. I’ve been through that one so many times. The truth is that some bloggers have very good journalistic habits and indeed some bloggers are journalists. Some journalists have very bad journalistic habits and are a disgrace to their profession. Bloggers are not killing their medium through punditry at all – there’s plenty of room for pundits and journalists in the blogosphere, and each find their own audience.

Fact checking and editors. Bloggers have their own fact-checking mechanism which in more formal publishing environs is called ‘peer review’. We link to our sources, we are transparent, we disclose our interests, and if we don’t, someone else will. Not everyone is as diligent as we would like, but in general the blogosphere has a self-righting mechanism which will at the very least point out who’s being an idiot.

Truth. Not everything you read in the mainstream media is true. Not everything you read in the blogosphere is true. This is not news.

My sources: Actually, my sources were the Creative Commons blog and the BzzAgent site, which I went through and read to make sure that I had understood what they do, and I quoted verbatim from their own material. I didn’t pull anything from any other blogs, primarily because I couldn’t find any other blogs which had written about this at that time. I also quoted a friend of mine who, when I mentioned BzzAgent, called them ‘fuckwit liars’. Whether you agree with that opinion is a moot point – it illustrates the way that BzzAgents are perceived and that is important when discussing how BzzAgent’s reputation could rub off on Creative Commons.

I don’t have ‘informants’, as Dave puts it, and I’d like to see a simple, bulletpoint list of my 12 ‘misstated facts’. I’m also not sure where this ‘vicious cycle of lies’ comes from either, so I’d like to see that elaborated.

I am not sure why Dave thinks that word of mouth interactions are somehow inherently more truthful than any other sort of interaction, particularly when he’s encouraging people to alter the nature of their word of mouth interactions in order to earn rewards. Blogs are a non-ephemeral medium, and bloggers can be held to account in public for what they write. How this makes blogs less truthful than any other medium I am not sure.

So, Dave, when are you going to begin holding yourself to the same standards of truthfulness that you are claiming I flout?

Oh dear. Creative Commons shack up with BzzAgents

According to the Creative Commons blog, CC have now entered into a pro bono arrangement with ‘word of mouth’ promoters BzzAgents so that the latter can promote the former:

Creative Commons is fortunate to have a partnership with BzzNet Inc., a word-of-mouth marketing firm based in Boston. Today, BzzNet launched a grass roots marketing campaign to promote Creative Commons. What does this mean? The marketing campaign is a network of volunteer brand evangelists who share their honest opinions about products and services with other consumers. The Bzz agents are regular joes like you and me who bzzz (or promote) different campaigns.

BzzAgent’s GoodBzz Partnership provides selected non-profits with a pro bono 12 week marketing campaign. To become a BzzAgent and help support Creative Commons in this BzzCampaign, visit BzzAgent.com.

Oh dear.

The concept behind BzzAgents is that they bring together bloggers and companies so that the companies can benefit from the ‘word of mouth’ promotion of their products by the BzzAgent bloggers. What happens is that BzzAgent launch a campaign, then the BzzAgents can sign up to a campaign if they like the look of it:

After a BzzAgent signs up for a BzzCampaign, their BzzKit will arrive in the mail a week or two later. This kit usually includes a product sample and a BzzGuide, the custom guide created to help BzzAgents create real, honest Word-of-Mouth Bzz about the product or service.


BzzAgents are given a list of BzzActivities to help spread Word-of-Mouth Bzz in every BzzGuide. These activities make it easier and more fun for them to spread Bzz.

Every time a BzzAgent ‘spreads Bzz’ they earn points, which they can then redeem for rewards.

Now, if companies want to try their luck with BzzAgent, that’s up to them. I don’t like the idea of trying to manufacture buzz because I think that it detracts from real thing, the stuff that’s earnt by having a really good product. To me, it pollutes the blogosphere with bought, fake ‘word of mouth’, but I can see why companies would want to try it.

But for Creative Commons to start using BzzAgents is, not to put too fine a point on it, a betrayal of the work done by grassroots activists who are genuinely concerned about the state of copyright today. The people who have been working hard on promoting CC, who are contributing CC material to the ever growing commons, who are writing about copyright reform, putting together seminars and events, these are CC’s ‘buzz agents’, and they do all this work for free, because they believe on a fundamental level that it is important.

Creative Commons is not a new gadget. It’s not a new flavour of tea. I’ve been reading about CC, copyright and digital rights as much as possible over the last year, and still there are areas where my understanding is fuzzy. So how much reading and research are BzzAgent going to expect of their bloggers? How hard will a blogger have to work before they can start writing in an informed manner about CC? Or are the BzzAgents simply going to be saying ‘Whoa, this CC shit is cool! I get free stuff!’?

I think that getting BzzAgents to promote CC is doing a massive disservice not just to all the people who promoted CC because they believed in it, but also CC itself. In using fake ‘word of mouth’ promotion they devalue the work done by real supporters by polluting the blogosphere with fake buzz.

Of course, the counter-argument will be that BzzAgents are honest, only saying what they think about a product and not committed to always being nice. I accept that many BzzAgents will undoubtedly try to adhere to this, but you can’t get away from the fact that they are being rewarded to write about something, and that in and of itself affects not just one’s subconscious reaction to the thing you are writing about (and as someone who has written product reviews professionally, I am intimately acquainted with this problem), but also the perceptions of the reader.

If Creative Commons want to promote their work, there are better ways of doing it than with BzzAgents. The whole point of the blogosphere is that it allows you to easily find those who are interested in the stuff you’re interested in, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t reach out to individuals within the CC community and discuss with them how best to raise awareness. But instead, they have chosen to get into bed with a company whom one friend of mine characterised as ‘fuckwit liars’.

Just rereading that first paragraph of the CC post makes my blood run cold. ‘Grass roots marketing campaign’? ‘Volunteer brand evangelists’?

CC is supposed to be about cutting out the corporate bullshit, but here they are, buying into it. Very disappointing indeed.

The RIAA – truly doolally

Bram Janssen has an interesting post discussing why he thinks that the RIAA and other monopolies suffer a sort of corporate insanity.

Here’s is the Wikipedia definition of insanity:

Insanity (sometimes, madness) is the condition of being in some way mentally “out of touch” with the real world or with “normal” human functioning, often assumed to be a result of a mental illness. A person may be said to be insane for a number of reasons. In many countries’ legal systems, insanity is a legal category, designating a person as either unaware of their actions, or aware of them but unable to determine whether those actions are right or wrong.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Somebody call the men with the oversized butterfly nets please.

Who owns your portfolio? – A look at IP for designers

My latest article about intellectual property, copyright and Creative Commons for web designers is out today in Issue 4 of Design In-Flight. Here’s an excerpt:

Who owns your portfolio?

It might seem logical that you own the designs you create; but it’s not always true.

With the advent of the first graphical internet browser came a whole new design discipline – web design – and with it came a new way of getting work. Instead of collating examples of their best work in a book to be carried from interview to interview, designers started to use websites to display their talents. Online portfolios allowed designers to include not just a set of images, but links to the finished sites so that prospective clients could examine code and functionality. Now designers of all ilks can send not a physical portfolio but a simple URI to new employers, and can promote themselves online using their website as their business card.

But the very thing that makes an online portfolio so useful – the ease with which it can be found – is also its biggest drawback, because if you include content which one of your former clients or employers thinks is infringing their copyright, they can quickly and easily find you and take action.

If you want to read the whole thing, then you can buy a copy of Design In-Flight for just $3, or you can get the first four issues for $10. Editor, Andy Arikawa has consistently drawn together some great writing from some of the industries best designers – so it’s always well worth the investment.

Other cool stuff in this issue includes: Eye on type 01, by Hrant H. Papazian; Feeling your way around grids, by Mark Boulton; and The more things stay the same, the more they change, by Molly E. Holzschlag. So run, don’t walk, and get your copy now.

(Crossposted from ChocnVodka)

First UK blogger fired for blogging

In the first case of its kind in the UK, blogger Joe Gordon from Edinburgh has been sacked by his employer Waterstone’s for a few mildly negative comments he made about his job on his satirical blog, The Woolamaloo Gazette. Joe was warned shortly before Christmas that he was going to be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct for bringing Waterstone’s into disrepute, but due to the festive season the hearing did not take place until 5th January. The hearing found that he had ‘violated the rules’ and he was summarily dismissed.

In dismissing Joe, though, Waterstone’s has prompted a massive backlash and huge amounts of very negative publicity – the story has been covered by BoingBoing, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Bookseller, and The Register. Matthew Whitaker, who is a fellow blogger and a friend of Joe’s, is keeping a round up of all the press this story receives, and there have been a huge number of supportive comments on Joe’s own blog with many people writing to the company to complain or promising to boycott Waterstone’s completely.

As a bookseller with 11 years experience at Waterstone’s, and as someone responsible for organising many of the book signings that have taken place in the Edinburgh branch, Joe has the support not only of the blogosphere but also of authors such as Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, and Richard Morgan.

All in all, this has turned into a major PR gaffe for the company – the blog-savvy media here have all been aware of the possibility of someone getting sacked for blogging because it’s happened several times in America, and they’ve been just gagging for a story like this to unfold here. I predict that it will be picked up now by the wider media, that Joe will get a whole lot of useful legal advice and support, and that Waterstone’s will end up with a large serving of egg on their face. Which will stick.

In the US, employment law exists but is weak – if you challenge your former employer’s decision to dismiss you, you are very likely to wind up on the heap marked ‘unemployable’ even if you win, but the situation in the UK is very different. Tribunals and unfair dismissal cases are taken more seriously, not just by the unions but by people in general. When someone gets fired unfairly, we tend to come down on the side of the employee. We like our underdogs.

My hopes for Joe, on a personal level, is that he gets the support and advice he requires to successfully challenge Waterstone’s and that he gets recompense for his dismissal which, on the face of it, looks very unfair. I also hope that he gets a far better job than the one that he was fired from. But looking at this more broadly, this case brings to light the fact that there has been in general a lack of thought about the issue of bloggers mentioning their work on their blogs and what that means. We need now to have some calm, sensible discussions about the repercussions of what has happened.

More to come when I’ve had a think about it.