Conversations with corporations

This is getting interesting!

John Battelle has posted a reasonable defense of the Federated Media “conversational ad” scheme that I discussed earlier. (And it strikes a healthily non-defensive tone, too, which is awfully hard in such a situation.) He argues that he views “commercial publications” as conversations between three parties: authors, audiences and advertisers.

Well, OK. You know who the authors are; they sign their writing. You know who you are, as a member of the audience. But who, exactly, is the advertiser? That is the problem with Battelle’s formulation, as I see it.

Blogging presupposes a notion of direct communication between writer and reader, where there is no editor or intermediary bureaucracy between the two, and where the reader, as often as not, is also a blogger, ready to respond — to participate in the “conversation.”

But this advertiser-as-conversationalist thing, I’m still having a hard time with it. If you look at the “People Ready” conversation page that FM and Microsoft created, where, exactly, is Microsoft joining the conversation? I see lots of names here, but no name representing Microsoft. If you click through to the “About People Ready” page, you can read stuff like, “Microsoft sees a better way to unlock the potential of every person.” But, er, who exactly is Microsoft?

In a comment posted on Jeff Jarvis’s blog, Battelle elaborates:

Is it somehow illegal for companies to be part of a conversation? I really find that presumption offensive. Why can’t companies, which as the Cluetrain reminds us are just made up of people, be part of a conversation, and invite leader into that conversation?

I have only one problem with this argument: A corporation is not (pace the late 19th-century legal doctrine that held corporations to have the same rights as individuals) a person. There are plenty of individual people who work for corporations. (I do, too.) And when they post in online forums or start blogs or do anything that they sign their name to, I’m very happy to have a conversation with them. But that’s different from “companies being part of a conversation.” I don’t know how to do that. And I really don’t see that happening with the “People Ready” campaign.

A deep irony here is that Microsoft, of all the big tech companies, has a long and proud record of promoting blogging among its engineers and executives. I’ve learned a vast amount by reading them, and their presence online — including the famous Robert Scoble (who weighs in on this controversy here, and who of course has long since moved on from Microsoft) but extending far beyond him — has changed my understanding of the company and the people who work for it. Microsoft is already part of a panoply of real conversations on the Web. That makes this “People Ready” construct look all the more artificial.

UPDATE: More from Matthew Ingram:

If I’m talking to a bunch of people in a bar, and an advertising guy working for Coke comes up and tries to change the subject to the idea of “refreshment,” and says that he plans to tape-record my comments and use them on a billboard, then I am going to react pretty negatively to that idea. That’s not a “conversation” the way I would define it.

[tags]people ready, federated media, ethics, blogging[/tags]

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  1. Peter

    corporations have _many_ more rights than persons. first, they are perpetual persons. second, they have more power than just a single person.

  2. Those are legal and financial constructs. Whatever rights a corporation may possess, how do you sit across a table — or across a Web page — and have a conversation with a corporation (or a “perpetual person”)? You can do so with individuals who have names. But anyone who tells me I’m “talking with Microsoft” is speaking marketing double-talk.


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