Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Attack of the Whiners

Daniel Lyons takes the offensive against us mean ol' bloggers in Forbes Magazine (hat tip to Hammer of Truth; the Forbes article may require registration, or feel free to use the login "rationalreview/rationalreview").

Can't win for losing, can't we? It's always either some gee-whiz singularity nincompoop advertising blogs as the Second Coming, or a corporate buzzcrusher lamenting the loss of Big Media's grip on the new Big Medium.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've slowly seen the light where blogging's potential is concerned -- bloggers have re-channeled the public discourse in some pretty major ways. I also understand the potential for abuse. Any tool that makes it easier to publish makes it easier to publish, well, libel.

Lyons' article, however, makes it clear what the real issue is by quoting Stephen Down of Kryptonite, a company which makes bike locks (some of which turned out to be easily picked -- a discovery touted, and then expanded, sometimes at the expense of truth and fact, by bloggers): "A blogger can go out and make any statement about anybody, and you can't control it."

Actually, you can control it -- it's just that a huge, ongoing technological advance is occurring. Once upon a time, it was difficult to spread disinformation, because it was difficult to spread information, period. People got their news and public commentary courtesy of a few people who owned printing presses or radio or television stations; in turn, the newspapers and electronic media got their public news and commentary primarily through a few channels -- wire services and network news operations.

Over time, corporate America got used to having it easy ... if someone wasn't telling the truth (or, sometimes, if someo was telling a truth that someone didn't want told), it was a simple matter of having house counsel send a cease-and-desist/retract-or-correct demand to one of those bottlenecks or perhaps to one of a few thousand smaller outlets that were coming up with something on their own. At worst, an occasional defamation or libel action might be necessary.

Enter the Internet, and suddenly several million (now about a billion) people can publish what they like with the press of a button, and everyone else can read it instantly. It's no longer just a matter of keeping an eye on Associated Press and ABC News ... Technorati, as of today, indexes more than 20 million blogs. Corporate attorneys are curled up in fetal positions under their desks, wailing about the impossibility of policing their employees' good reputations.

Cue the violins. Or maybe not.

Yes, it's harder for a company to protect its reputation by calling in the attorneys these days, simply because the attack can come from, and go to, so many more places and the attackers may not be easy to track down. But the same companies which have to work harder to protect their reputations have access to the same medium -- they're benefiting from the positive exposure as well as suffering from the negative. They have access to advertising and promotion options that didn't exist just a few short years ago. They're increasingly able to move their products and services direct to the buyer instead of operating through expensive meatspace distribution networks. The scalar increase may not be the same on both positive and negative sides, but it exists on both sides.

The huge, ongoing technological advance that began with the introduction of personal computers and proceeded through mass access to the Internet and the Big Blogospheric Bang entails all kinds of changes, some of them tumultuous and not all of them welcome to all people. Corporate America needs to understand that it's going to have to roll with the punches like everyone else. Advance censorship of Internet publications, shattering reasonable privacy protections to make it easier to find attackers, etc., are not options, and they're not going to be options. You don't get to accept the benefits without incurring the costs.

If corporate America really wants to suppress blog criticism (which does admittedly sometimes extend to libel and defamation) instead of bearing its costs and exploring its own legal options, let's make a deal -- if businesses are willing to give up their own web presences and refrain from online advertising, then they can have a say in whether and how their corporate names are mentioned on the Internet, perhaps through some kind of on-the-backbone text filtering. What's that? No dice? Didn't think so, and I thought it was a bad deal for both parties myself anyway. So stop whining and get back to making money already. Most of us can tell the knotheads from the legitimate critics. Those of us who can't easily do so will likely be as responsive to well-framed retorts as we were to the original complaints. And if your legal costs go up in tandem with your profits? Deal with it. That's the cost of doing business.

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