Word of the day: Advertorial

So advertorial – one of those words (like “anecdata”) that has meaning the first time you hear it.  A piece of writing that is made to look like one thing (usually an article) but which is really another thing (an advertisement).

While the most famous example of this for instruction librarians is undoubtedly the advertisements for Big Pharma in the form of scholarly journals flying under Elsevier’s flag of convenience, they are apparently and not surprisingly a well-established tool in the public relations toolkit.  They even give awards for them.  In the last round of Bronze Anvil Awards (given by the Public Relations Society of America to “recognize outstanding public relations tactics”) there were two awards given to advertorials — one to InSinkerator for something called InSinkerator Gets Home Builders to Think Green, and one to the Florida Department of Citrus, for their Florida Grapefruit Makes Headlines.

So why am I thinking about advertorials today?  Because they are wrecking one of my favorite places to go on the Internet — ScienceBlogs.

In short, ScienceBlogs disastrously, inexplicably, weirdly, agreed to allow a new nutrition blog to join ScienceBlogs – which is an invitation-only type networks of blogs about science and scientific research.  The weird, disastrous, etc. thing about this new blog, called Food Frontiers, was that it was produced by PepsiCo, and the decision to fairly radically change the type of content that was part of the ScienceBlogs network was made in an uncommunicative, opaque, closed way.

Summaries of the fallout – which bloggers are staying which are going, where the going bloggers are now – can be best found here, at Carl Zimmer’s blog (associated with Discover magazine) — Oh, Pepsi, What Hast Thou Wrought.

A Note from ScienceBlogs can be found on the former site of the Pepsi blog, explaining the decision to take it down.

So what does this all mean and why do I care?  Lots of people know that I love ScienceBlogs, or that I have loved ScienceBlogs, as a librarian who teaches – my love for it has only grown.  So now what?

Dave Mosher provides a good summary of what this means for content from ScienceBlogs in the future – which is the issue about which I am really concerned.  I don’t

That effort signals a fundamental change to the way their content is structured:

Before: Blogs.
After: Editorial blogs. | Advertorial blogs.

I type “signals” and not “is” because the transformation isn’t complete.

Because part of this is about reputation – and not reputation in that individual kind of way, but reputation in that authority/publishing/information literacy kind of way that means so much to students struggling to find their way through the scholarly landscape –

From Dave Munger (emphasis added) -

The hypocrisy in handing a nutrition podium to a company that is seriously implicated in the global obesity crisis was astonishing, and even worse, the dozens of bloggers who’ve worked for years to build ScienceBlogs’ reputation were taken completely by surprise.

Former ScienceBlogger David Dobbs nails the key irony here (again, emphasis added), arguing that PepsiCo is “buying credibility generated by others even as they damage same.”

As PalMD and others have pointed out, PepsiCo hardly lacks platform. The only value they can gain from writing here is to draw on the credibility created by a bunch of independent voices engaged in earnest,= thoughtful (well, most of the time), and genuine conversation.

What these (and countless other) commentaries point out is that the reputation of the site matters – that the name ScienceBlogs is supposed to mean something and one of the things it is supposed to mean is no corporate agendas — the fact that just anyone couldn’t write for ScienceBlogs, the fact that ScienceBloggers were writing independently, the fact that their creators, Seed Media, proclaims this lofty agenda (from their About page) all adds up to a set of expectations about what the content on the site was supposed to be.

We believe that science literacy is a pre-condition for progress in the 21st century. At a time when public interest in science is high but public understanding of science remains weak, we have set out to create innovative media ventures to improve science literacy and to advance global science culture.

While those expectations were not always reasonable and there were ads on the site, and whatever else might also have been a little muddy or murky before – there was an idea behind the project that was an important part of why this project was useful to me in the classroom and at the reference desk and in my own work.  It is not that this content was all supposed to be good, or right, or true, or even civil – but the reasons for it being written?  They were supposed to relate to improving the public understanding of science and science literacy.  So what does that mean in a world when that content is either editorial or advertorial?  No matter how easy it is to tell which is which on the site (and the RSS feed?  the Twitter stream??) – that changes things.

Bora Zivkovic hones in on this question of a network’s reputation in his post, explaining his reasons for leaving ScienceBlogs…

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future.

Zivkovic goes on to discuss the ways in which the existence and influence of the ScienceBlogs network makes the people who blog there de facto science journalists – whether they are aware of (or willing to embrace) that fact or now. It is not surprising in this context (the context of how important science blogging has become to science journalism) that some of the first reactions to the Pepsi blog controversy came not from quick-on-the-draw bloggers, but from mainstream media outlets and watchdogs.

I don’t blog at ScienceBlogs (not many librarians do) and it’s not a crucial part of my everyday professional knowledge building because most of the content on the site isn’t directly aimed at my professional needs — it’s more the idea of the project that is important to my work than the reality of what is posted there on a day-to-day basis. That’s not true for everyone.  But as a libriarian, particularly a librarian working with first-year students making the transition to academic thinking, reading, and writing, ScienceBlogs was (and probably is) a go-to site for me.

A lot of the reason for this is the authority/credibility/reputation issues discussed above.  Not that my students could or should automatically trust any of the content on that or any site, but because I felt like I could tell them (quickly, in a 50-minute one-shot) why and how that information had been created in a way that could guide their critical and effective use of the site as a tool — an incredibly valuable tool – that would help them navigate expert research and academic writing.

But another part of the reason is good old fashioned findability.  As Zivkovic says in his discussion of the network effect at ScienceBlogs, most people don’t track blogs using RSS readers or other tools – they find the content when they search for it.  And when they search for it and find it on one blog in the network, all of the blogs in the network are made stronger.  I don’t expect my first-year students to really figure out yet what pieces of the dynamic web they want to track for scholarly or professional purposes – most of them, at 18, are still figuring out what those purposes will be. They may want to track stuff for a particular class, or a particular term, but yeah – for most of them the searchability and the browsability of this site was key to its being useful.  ResearchBlogging is good for that too, and there are other collections of resources that I can point indivdiual students to – but nothing else out there does what ScienceBlogs does (did?) as a place to illustrate the importance and utility of science blogging and academic blogging.

Carl Zimmer puts his finger on one of the main issues for me – if the bloggers leave ScienceBlogs that may be (probably will be) good for the quality of the content but bad for the findability of the content, and those things are not totally unrelated.

What I find particularly galling about this whole affair is that bloggers who don’t want to associate themselves with this kind of nonsense have to go through the hassle of leaving Scienceblogs and setting up their blog elsewhere. The technical steps involved may be wonderfully easy now (export files, open account on WordPress, import), but the social steps remain tedious.

Munger picks up the theme -

If they want to continue to have the kind of influence they used to have at ScienceBlogs, I think the bloggers who have left the site need to do something more than just start or restart their old, independent blogs. They need to form a new network — perhaps built around different principles, but a network nonetheless.

I think so too – I think if they lose the network effect, individual blogs and bloggers and small groups of same will be able to connect with one type of reader, and an important type of reader, but they’ll lose the true neophyte who stumbles on to new ways of talking about evidence and knowledge coming in through a Google Search — or because a librarian says “browse here for a while” when they’re stuck looking for topics.

Ira Flatow (NPR’s Science Friday) offers to talk about hosting departing ScienceBlogs bloggers’ blogs on the Science Friday site instead. And again here.  I suspect that even the benign oversight of NPR might seem too much to the gunshy bloggers who left ScienceBlogs, but I hope they do find each other again somewhere, or that they build new somewheres elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “Word of the day: Advertorial

  1. Just to keep you up to date, NPR does not edit our website. We are independent producers, not on the staff of NPR. Therefore “oversight of NPR” does not really exist on the website.

    My offer to host science bloggers on our web site, http://www.sciencefriday.com still stands and we are updating the as we have received numerous requests from refugee bloggers for a home.

    We are happy to supply one.

  2. Thanks for the clarification – tthat’s useful to know. I was wondering if people would feel like the only way to be truly safe would be to take total control – a reaction I’ve seen before but that isn’t an option for many because of barriers like lack of time or skills. This story has me thinking a lot about the kinds of systems or conditions that need to exist for people to voluntarily participate in a knowledge-sharing or producing network — peer review itself is one such system and while many feel used by it, they do it anyway. What I am getting from the “why I left” stories is a strong sense of betrayal – that people thought they were a part of something and discovered they weren’t, at least not in the way they thought they were. Interesting.

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