Heffernan vs the SciBloggers: when community becomes commodity

As you may have read, a group of high-profile and high-quality science bloggers recently left the network that had long housed them because the parent company had done a deal with Pepsi to create a nutrition blog in their midst.

Now we have a high-handed column from the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan, which basically tells these bloggers: Grow up. Get real. This is the way the world works!

Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

That may be because they have editors who (when they’re good) fight to defend standards against the encroachment of the business side. These bloggers had no choice but to represent themselves.

Heffernan goes on to fume about the bloggers’ “eek-a-mouse posturing” and mines their work for quotes that make them look silly or small-minded. I’ve read a lot of these blogs over the years and don’t recognize them in her portrait.

But she misses the bigger story here, so let me lay it out for you. The ScienceBlogs saga is a version of a tale that keeps repeating itself in our online culture — the one where a group of people who (correctly or not) thought of themselves as a community discover that they are being treated as a commodity.

This has been happening from the very beginning of human congregation online. It happened when AOL got sued by its moderators; it happened when the WELL’s pioneers lost their trust in the businessman who bought the service in the mid-’90s. I’m sure it will keep happening, so let’s try to understand it a little better than Heffernan does.

The ScienceBlogs affair is not a case of a bunch of reporters in a newsroom crying foul because a church/state line was crossed. This is a group of writers who believed they were collaborating in their own little space on the Web, a meritocracy of sorts built on their own labor. Then they woke up to the rude realization that somebody else owned their real estate — and was going to sell some of the space without their having any say in the matter.

As I understand it, the Pepsi blog was not an advertorial; it was a blog manned by Pepsico-salaried nutritional scientists. It might have been a good blog, for all we know. But it represented a change in the rules. The bloggers weren’t consulted. They thought of themselves as party hosts, and discovered that management though of them as “a source of revenue” (in the words of Bora Zivkovic, a SciBlogger who wrote the definitive post on the controversy).

For Heffernan, it might be better to try to imagine that her Times employers had sold the office or cubicle next to hers to some sponsor’s hand-picked writer, who would henceforth fill the magazine page opposite hers: “Here’s a sponsored journalist — have fun together!”

But, really, it’s not the details of the Pepsi blog that are important. After all, ScienceBlogs’ owner, Seed, withdrew the scheme once the bloggers raised a ruckus. It was too late. The bloggers had lost the illusion that they were involved in a community; they saw the businessman behind the curtain. There was no going back.

This loss of innocence is, I think, a nearly universal experience online. It occurs when one’s initial surge of idealistic delight at the freedom and opportunities of boundless self-expression slams into the realities of the media business online.

People who have experienced this will thereafter keep their antenna out and much more finely tuned to questions of ownership and governance and autonomy. They will not use the word “community” without thinking about it. They will also never again feel quite the same unqualified delight in sharing their writing online.

Should the science bloggers have known what was coming? Should they have been less innocent? Probably. But then they might not have been as exuberantly good at what they did.

I don’t think the outcome is a tragedy. The former ScienceBloggers will continue to be science bloggers, producing great posts and forming new communities. I think they’ll just handle the business-and-independence issues a little more carefully next time around. They are learning from their experience; I wish Heffernan had done so too.

BONUS LINKS: Ex-SciBlogger David Dobbs has a thoughtful response on his Neuron Culture blog.

And Jason Goldman, still on SciBlogs, helps point Heffernan to where the “real science” can be found there.

LATE UPDATE: Heffernan has posted a response at Dobbs’ blog.

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  1. Nice post, Scott, and thanks for the link to mine on the same subject. I would add that at least for some of is, this wasn’t so much a loss of innocence or a shattering of illusions as an indication from Seed that the ownership didn’t respect one of the most important editorial practices in place to guard against the most blatant sort of buying of editorial space. (I’m referring to the ad-ed wall I’ve written about several times, including in the link you kindly cite above.)

    I think it’s possible and perhaps easy to overstate how extensive the feeling of SciBling community was among the bloggers there. That was and is an important thing to many, less so to others. I speak only for myself on this, of course. But I — and I think some of the others who left and/or objected as well — felt the insult and injury was less to the sense of community at ScienceBlogs than to a broader sense of journalistic ethics and standards. (Some, of course, reacted to both insults — the insult to a group of people they felt close to as well as to ethical practice.)

    That said, the spirited reaction of so many ScienceBloggers did inspire a certain amount of camaraderie, and perhaps community in the sense of a larger purpose. And your main point certainly stands: Many bloggers — and perhaps many readers — will look upon networks perhaps a bit more critically now than they did before. Certainly that holds at ScienceBlogs now.

  2. Re the following paragraph from this blog posting

    As I understand it, the Pepsi blog was not an advertorial; it was a blog manned by
    Pepsico-salaried nutritional scientists. It might have been a good blog, for all we
    know. But it represented a change in the rules. The bloggers weren’t consulted.
    They thought of themselves as party hosts, and discovered that management
    though of them as “a source of revenue” in the words of Bora Zivkovic.

    Hang on, this is more than just “a change in the rules.” What, exactly, is the difference between an “advertorial” and “a blog manned by Pepsico-salaried nutritional scientists?” Maybe you are misinformed. The stated purpose of it was something like, “to let everyone know about the exciting advances in nutritional science that we’re making at Pepsico.” Look, if company people are going to tell you about the advances of the company, then this right away is reason to question the credibility of what’s said by those people. That is not just in journalism, but anywhere. Frankly, this seems to me to be a serious problem in clinical studies conducted by drug companies, and it applies to most of the literature in medicine.

    Of course, I don’t have the original statement by the Pepsi people handy, and for all I know, it’s gone from the Internet. But I remember this pretty clearly.

    Another point which is relevant is that it’s difficult to see how a company that makes all kinds of sweetened drinks which are a main source of empty calories can have credibility on issues having to do with nutrition. Are they going to say, “let’s stop drinking sweetened drinks, like the kind our company makes?”

    Furthermore, one “sponsored blog” among many other blogs raises the issue, What other kinds of “sponsorship” is going on here? There was no stated policy on the site about this. In fact, before the Pepsico issue came up, there was no particular reason to believe that the bloggers weren’t getting paid, per click on ads, for instance, or by the unique visitor.

    Whether they were aware of it or not, people leaving and complaining does have the effect of strengthening the credibility of scientists; many of the people involved (all?) are PhD-holding practicing scientists. They acted in a way which any scientist and I think the general public who trust scientists would find reasonable–the science bloggers did what was clearly required for them to maintain credibility.

  3. Perplexed in Peoria

    Scott Rosenberg writes “As I understand it, the Pepsi blog was not an advertorial; it was a blog manned by Pepsico-salaried nutritional scientists. It might have been a good blog, for all we know.”

    There is no need to speculate as to how good it might have been. “Food Frontiers” existed before Pepsigate and it continues to exist today. Is it good? I don’t think so, and the couple of other people who have written comments there seem less happy with it than I am. But I think it is worth a look – it provides a useful outlying datapoint regarding just how boring a blog can be. Maybe, instead of paying Sb to publish it, they should pay people to read it.


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