SideWiki’s Wish Fulfilment

A piece in today’s Guardian attracted my attention–“SideWiki Changes Everything”—as I thought, perhaps, it might shed new light on Google’s browser sidebar that allows anyone to add comments to a website whether or not the website owner wants them to. The piece calls the evolution of SideWiki a “seminal moment”.

The column itself, however, is disappointing, given that SideWiki has been out six weeks already:

Few people in PR, it seems, have considered the way that SideWiki will change the lives of beleaguered PR folk. In time, this tool will significantly change the way brands strategise, think and exist. SideWiki is going to challenge PR by providing the masses with the tool for the ultimate expression of people power, something uncontainable that will need constant monitoring.

The author, one Mark Borkowski, offers no examples of this happening, so the piece is very much speculation. In fact, I’d argue that SideWiki has been something of a damp squib:

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A, by the way, marks the launch, so the interest fell off dramatically almost immediately.

So who is right? I can find very little evidence that people are using SideWiki in the way that Borkowski suggests. A look at top 10 U.S. companies (not the top 10, but a cross section) indicates that only one company has ‘claimed’ its SideWiki page, and that few users, so far, have made use of SideWiki to express their views about the company:

Company Entries Claimed Comments
Walmart 2 No Even
Exxon Mobil 0 No
Chevron 0 No
GM 0 No
Apple 20+ No Even
Monsanto 0 No
Starbucks 0 No
White House 2 (blog posts) No
Blackberry 2 Yes Even
Microsoft 20+ No Negative

Now I’m not saying that SideWiki isn’t going to be an important way for people to get around websites’ absence of comment boxes or lack of contact information. I’d love it if that was the case. I’m just saying there’s very little evidence of it so far, so to argue that is premature at best, and poor journalism at worst.

And here’s the rub. Mark Borkowski is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be; he’s a PR guy. But how would you know that? The Guardian page on which his comment sits does not clearly indicate that; indeed, the format is exactly the same as for its journalist contributors:

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Only at the bottom does one find out that he “is founder and head of Borkowski PR.”

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I have no problem with PR guys writing comment pieces for my favorite newspaper. I just want to know that is who they are before I start reading. (I can hear the argument being made that Borkowski is a well-known name in the UK, so this shouldn’t be necessary. But that doesn’t hold water. The affiliation of all writers should be clearly indicated.)

The problem? Anyone who is not a journalist—and many who are–has an interest, and that interest should be clearly declared. In Borkowski’s case, he works in PR, and is clearly suggesting that PR agencies need to work harder in this space:

The social media world encloses our personal and professional actions – the only answer for PR folk is to take a more active role in being brand custodians, representing a higher degree of brand and reputation management.

In other words, he’s indirectly touting for business. Once again, nothing wrong with that if the piece is clearly tagged as an opinion piece—which it may be, in the print version. But here, online, there’s no such indication.

Of course, one should also check that the writer does not have a financial or business interest in the product and company being written about, in this case Google. I can find none on his website, but that I have to check—that it’s not clearly flagged on the piece itself—is not something I or other readers should have to do.

Bottom line? The Guardian isn’t alone in this. The Wall Street Journal does it too. But I don’t think it helps these great brands to, wittingly or unwittingly, dismantle the Chinese Walls between content by its own reporters and those outsiders who, however smart and objective they are, have interests that readers need to know about.

SideWiki changes everything | Mark Borkowski | Media | The Guardian

Bloggers Bash Into Chinese Walls, Part XVI

Once again, the non-journalist end of blogging is finding that its world is surprisingly like the old world of media. TechCrunch, a widely read blog of things going on in the social media world of Web 2.0, has run into the kind of conflicts that traditional media grappled with (and are still grappling with) since time immemorial (well at least since last Wednesday.)

The story, in a nutshell is this: TechCrunch sets up a UK version of its site. TechCrunch, itself heavily sponsored by Web 2.0 startup advertising, co-sponsors a Web 2.0 conference in Paris. TechCrunch UK editor attends said confab, which ends in controversy and accusations that the organiser, one Loic Lemeur, messed up. Organiser lambasts TechCrunch UK editor’s own accusations. Sparks fly, one thing leads to another, and TechCrunch UK editor is fired by TechCrunch owner and the UK website suspended. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth within blogosphere and talk of raging ethical debate.

I can’t pretend to have read all of the raging ethical debate (as raging ethical debates go, you want to set aside a good chunk of time for one that rages in the blogosphere: Harrington’s post on the subject currently has 78 comments, a few dozen more here before its suspension. Even Journalist.co.uk and The Guardian wrote about it, although judging from the headline I don’t think it was for the front page.)

Now there’s plenty of fodder for good debates here, and it’s not only Arrington who is getting a fair amount of flack for all this. But there’s an easy way of looking at this: Arrington is the publisher of TechCrunch. He’s Murdoch, Maxwell, whoever you want. TechCrunch is his brand. Anything that damages that brand, or appears to be damaging that brand, needs crushing, and that trumps everything else. You can’t blame him for that; if the editor of The Guardian starts damaging the brand of the paper you’d expect him to come in for some flak from the owner.

It gets complicated further in, however. Arrington is also an editor and writer. He’s also in the advertising and circulation department, since he’s out there drumming up business (often with the people he writes about, but that’s another story). So his role as publisher clashes with his role as editor, since a good editor will demand the independence necessary to criticise anyone, whether it’s sponsors, advertisers, even (and we’re talking theory here) the owners or publisher. Arrington in his role as editor was in conflict with his role as publisher and owner.

This is why traditional media separate these functions, and why, inevitably, TechCrunch and its ilk will have to too, as these kinds of crises occur. Editorial departments in traditional media have little or no contact with other departments, so oftentimes have no idea whether they’re sponsoring an event they’re attending. That’s how it should be, although it does perhaps contribute to the notion that journalists occupy their own little dreamworld.

Who knows where the truth lies in this particular mess, but if it awakens the blogosphere to the need to have Chinese Walls between advertising/sponsoring departments and the editorial side then that can only be good. In this case, if I were Arrington, I would start building them quickly. TechCrunch has at least 144,000 readers, a very respectable circulation, and that, whether he likes it or not, puts the publication into the realm of an outfit that needs to clearly demarcate the boundaries of its interests.