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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ethics in Blogging: A Normative Constraint on Excessive Economizing and Power-Aggrandizement

Blogs are interesting creatures. Like humans, they seek not merely self-preservation, but also the expansion of their domain on the internet. The empire-building does not have power-aggrandizement as its goal; rather, they use what power they have to maximize the reach of their words. To be heard by as many blogs as possible—as if quantity were more important than quality—is a still more intermediate means, with the end being to bring one's words to the world. At the extreme, a blog wants to see a world that has become a projection of its own words. Less extreme, a blog wants to be a significant player in societal discussions even beyond the internet. Toward such ends, blogs economize in the sense of seeking to minimize what they incorporate of other blogs beyond what they view as being useful to themselves, while attempting to maximize that of themselves that is incorporated on other blogs by power and moral suasion. Of the latter device, for example, a blog might say to another blog, “I’ll blogroll you if you blogroll me.” This is a variant of the manipulatory ploy of “I’ll follow you if you follow me” on Twitter.

As Susan Gunelius, an expert on blog marketing, observes in Blogging for Dummies, such reciprocity is no longer a normative practice in blogging. Indeed, the “I’ll follow you if you follow me” mentality is questionable at best. It implies that one person follows another not because of any value perceived on the followed’s account, but, rather, solely so he or she can be followed by yet another person.

For example, one way my essays are sent out is via @wordenreport on twitter. This is the entire purpose of that account. The reason why someone would follow the account is therefore presumably because he or she wants to read my essays (I don’t send out other tweets on that account). To hold that the value to the follower in receiving my essays is somehow dependent on me following him or her rather than on the quality of the my essays simply does not make sense from a logical standpoint. Moreover, the mentality that seeks to impose such a conditionality is inherently manipulatory. For my part, I would rather not have people follow @wordenreport if they do not want to read my essays, as receiving them is the sole purpose of that account. Furthermore, because I use @wordenreport simply to send out links to the essays, I do not look at incoming tweets; I have another twitter account to accommodate that. So it does not make sense for someone to want me to follow unless he or she is simply interested in having a higher number—as if that were an end in itself apart from signifying a greater reach attained for his or her mind. It is the combination of the element of manipulation and valuing a higher number as an end in itself that characterizes the mentality that I am identifying here. It evinces the sort of excesses that can manifest from the economizing and power-aggrandizing forces that are operative in blogging.

Fortunately, “semi-permeable” normative constraints can be applied to the two forces that seek to maximize the variable of self-interest. One might call such constraints ecologizing, for like an ecosystem they can be breached by a maximizing species or variable within. Susan Gunelius points to a few of the ethical “rules” that can act as constraints via pressure from other bloggers.

Spam can be interpreted as economizing or power-aggrandizing forces that fail to respect the normative "rules" of the internet society. Comment spam, for example, utilizes a useless or irrelevant comment-posting simply to self-promote (i.e., to economize) through links. Post-spam reduces a blog’s own post to an otherwise content-empty medium advertising the blog itself or someone else’s product in exchange for samples or money. Both of these kinds of spam are unethical because they operate under a subterfuge (i.e., promising to be something other than what they are). The underlying selfishness fuses with theft (i.e., stealing other bloggers’ time and effort in reading), and thus manifests passive aggression. In other words, it is a “taking” beyond that which the spammer is entitled to take.

As another example of the mentality that has a difficult time with limitation, some bloggers steal the bandwidth of other bloggers. According to Gunelius (2010, p. 69), bloggers and website owners can be charged more if the amount of time that their content is accessed increases dramatically, “such as when other bloggers use images without saving them to their own hosting accounts first.” Gunelius claims that a blogger should copy and save the picture (assuming fair use) before inserting the image in the post. Otherwise, the excess power-aggrandizing steals more than time and effort.

In describing excessive economizing and power-aggrandizing in blogging beyond ethical, or “ecologizing,” constraints, I have sought to bring out the element of aggression. The anger that bloggers feel toward the “cheaters” is not only due to the unfairness in the manipulation; the response is also to the passive aggression. If the responses go beyond what is proportionate, however, excessive power-aggrandizement is involved in the victims as well. That is, the victims can become victimizers! Such anger “over the top” is also evinced in comments that are hateful or otherwise attacking. It is the sheer excess in the anger that can strike one as amazing in the sense that it even happens at all.  For such intense anger to be directed to a total stranger, especially if he or she had posted on his opinion without ad hominem criticism, points to psychological problems in the person making the comment.

The spiked anger is actually a projection of the person’s failure to deal with his or her own problem, rather than having much at all to do with the “offending” post. Trolls, for example, are actually playing out their pathology on the internet because they believe they can take their anger out on strangers without any downside. Blackballing such people is not only smart; it is an ethical obligation if it is in line with preventing or minimizing future attacks against innocent victims. However, lest such hate be conflated with spam as if the two were equally egregious, it is important that efforts to keep hate at bay do not overflow as excessive power-aggrandizing! While spam is annoying and involves passive aggression, the anger in hateful writing directed to an innocent person is far worse.

Generally speaking, the bloggers who subscribe to normative constraints in the blogosphere recognize the existence of excessive power-aggrandizement and economizing forces in blogging. The theft and anger elements in the excess are particularly onerous. While the law cannot effectively sanction such elements, “societal” pressure can. However, lest the latter become self-righteous, it is important not to label as spam anything that is inconvenient.

For example, commenting (or tweeting) to someone on topic and including a link to one’s own post can be a legitimate part of an effort to start a conversation on a mutual topic—as long as there is content on that topic in addition to the link. You might tweet on Obama and Libya. I might send the following reply: “yeah, but Obama waited too long. So his motive is suspect. See link.” My reply was on the other’s topic and added content as well as a link to my posting on that content. To treat my tweet as cold-calling would be to overreact simply out of the mistaken belief sending out a tweet should not occasion tweets. In such overreaction is an element of presumptuousness in addition to the excessive power-aggrandizement. In other words, excess can manifest where it is least expected.  

Of course, I’m reading Blogging for Dummies, which fits my pace on blog technology and using social media on the internet. So my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps if we could bring more humility and less hate to our expansive electronic world, we might find that it would blast off to the stratosphere. We would be able to say, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” The new world is not merely technological; fundamentally, it is composed of fallible human beings—you and me. Lest we treat the self-seeking proclivity as anything less than ubiquitous, we could do worse than recognize it in ourselves.

Source: Susan Gunelius, Blogging for Dummies (Indianapolis: Wiley, 2010).

On ecologizing, economizing and power-aggrandizing forces applied to business and society, see: William C. Frederick, Values, Nature and Culture in the American Corporation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).