Commercial Free

There’s been an interesting discussion on the UK Bloggers discussion list today regarding online advertising and if it’s appropriate in the blogging world.

I need to put my position into context. I came to the web (and, therefore, to employment) because I truly believe that personal publishing can empower people. To me the pull of the medium was access to views and interests outside the mainstream. The ability to publish what you had to say without an editor’s red pen. That doesn’t mean that you can ignore laws of the land but, within an existing legal framework, it is relatively easy and cheap to publish. It’s not easy to guarantee the audience but that’s a different story. The message is out there and that’s a starting point (and should be a right in a democratic society). This is a good thing.

I also believe there is a need for a commercial web. The fact that we buy things online, read content paid for by subscription or advertising etc. helps pay for the infrastructure that allows the rest of us to publish. The commercial web is a good thing too.

Advertising is also a good thing, it pays for things so I don’t have to. I’ve made a career out of working in advertising-related industries. I have no objection to advertising.

Where it starts to blur for me is when the three points above mix. When it’s not clear if an opinion blogged is really paid for commercial content being passed of as something else. It’s not a problem unique to the blogsphere but it’s something that I haven’t pondered a great deal until today. It is a problem other media have had to deal with for years – some have done it better than others.

I honestly believe that giving marketers access to a weblog audience (and you can see why they would want a mass of referrals) starts to compromise the reason why weblogs/journals etc. are so successful and such an important part of the landscape these days. Any media with access to an audience is bound to attract the attention of marketing men. Let’s face it, that’s how Amazon grew – lots of affiliates making small amounts of money and we’ve been linking away to them for years. Is the integrity of a weblog at risk? Well, readers should be asking if a link to Amazon is bourne out of genuine appreciation of the book or if it was placed purely for profit.

The idealist in me thinks the freedom to publish personal opinion shouldn’t be mixed with commercial interests. The realist believes people have to pay for server space and bandwidth so a little commercial involvement may help allow people publish what they want to say. Thus the two are intertwined.

As always, it’s difficult to come down on one side of the arguments. I would honestly like to believe not everything in the world needs to carry a commercial message. I would like to believe that bloggers did it because they had something to say, even if, like this site, it’s not earth shattering. The world, however, is much more complex.

UPDATE 10 March 2003: Tom Coates – who sparked the discussion – wrote (as always) a great piece on this subject.

On this day…