Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

Bullying in Pursuit of the Public Good

Should we celebrate when a powerful NGO convinces a powerful corporation to change its mind on something?

Here’s an example. Greenpeace recently… um, persuaded Mattel to stop using packaging sourced from companies that contribute to deforestation in Indonesia. (See the story by Angelina Chapin: Greenpeace wins battle with Mattel.) Mattel is a major toymaker, selling millions of products wrapped in cardboard, so the company’s decisions on where to get that cardboard stand to have a significant environmental impact. And Greenpeace managed to get the company to change its ways.

I suspect — but only suspect — that this is a good thing. I don’t know much about the facts of this particular case, but I think generally it’s good that there are well-intentioned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Greenpeace working hard to get companies to think twice about the environmental impact of their business practices.

But it’s not always a good thing when NGOs badger and cajole a big company. Consider, for example, another case involving Greenpeace, namely the battle over the dismantling and disposal of the massive Brent Spar oil-storage buoy in the mid-90s. In that case, Greepeace launched a global campaign to pressure Shell, owner of the Brent Spar, to dispose of the floating oil-storage facility in a way that contradicted the company’s own environmental impact assessment. Greenpeace later changed its mind and apologized, but it was too late: Shell’s original disposal plan had already been scrapped, and the company’s share price damaged. In other words, Greenpeace had bullied Shell into doing the wrong thing.

Now most people are generally not very worried about major corporations, or large institutions of any kind, being bullied. And it’s easy enough to understand why. We’re usually more worried about corporations having too much power, rather than too little. But to uniformly celebrate victories of NGOs over corporations is to assume that NGOs are always right. And that’s a mistake. It’s also a mistake to assume that NGOs are in any important sense democratic, or automatically representative of the public interest.

Now this point must not be mistaken for a general critique of NGOs. There are many good NGOs out there, doing invaluable work. It’s just a reminder that the leaders of NGOs are not elected representatives, but rather self-appointed defenders of what they see as the public good. (I’ve written about how to assess NGO legitimacy before.)

Think of it this way. Companies sometimes do dumb things, and sometimes they do unethical things. There are lots of ways that can happen. Sometimes it’s due to flawed internal decision-making processes. Sometimes it’s a blind focus on profits or on expanding market share. Sometimes they do bad things in response to poorly-constructed regulations, or pressure from governments. And sometimes they’re bullied by other organizations, including NGOs.

And when a major corporation is bullied into making a bad decision, that bad decision can have enormous implications. So we should all watch with a careful eye when lobby groups, whether corporate or populist, attempt to use powerful non-democratic means to get their way.

Wall Street Needs to be Fixed, Not Occupied

Issues of corporate ethics are too important to leave to the Occupy Wall Street gang. The principles the group is fighting for are noble ones, but the tools they employ leave much to be desired. It’s up to the rest of us to use better tools.

Those currently camped out in New York, and other cities across the US, are right to want better corporate ethics, including a big dose of accountability and transparency. And they’re right to want to live in a just and equitable society. And they’re right to want certain kinds of electoral reform: finding ways to limit the influence of corporations (without stomping on free speech) would be a very good thing. But occupying Wall St. isn’t going to do it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m there, in spirit. Well, not there there. I’m not likely to join the sit-in anytime soon; those methods aren’t my methods. But I sympathize with the frustration manifested by the passionate, non-partisan cabal of well-intentioned folks who make up the Occupy Wall Street movement. Indeed, though our methods are radically different, I’ve dedicated my career to some of the same ideals. I’m committed to the project of figuring out the best possible standards for corporate structures and behaviours, and I hope that better understanding will lead, indirectly, to better outcomes. The folks of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement likely think my way won’t won’t have much impact. Don’t worry, I’m not taking it personally.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has substantial symbolic significance, but we all know, I think, that nothing concrete is going to come of it. To start with, the mechanism is all wrong — it’s not like corporate and political elites are going to see a sit-in, and suddenly going to smack their foreheads and say, “Oh, ok! Let’s make changes!” And then there’s the movement itself. It’s pretty clear by now that the loosely-organized movement doesn’t have much in the way of concrete goals. And its spokespeople can barely open their mouths on topics related to business and economics without saying things that are grossly mistaken. Their values are right, but the mechanisms they envision to implement those values — things like repealing corporate personhood — are deeply misguided. But then, to look for direct impact is, as others have observed, likely a mistake, and misses the real significance of the movement.

So it would be easy — too easy ‐ to dismiss Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of well-intentioned young people tilting at windmills. But that would be a mistake. The windmills they’re tilting at are important ones.

The real value of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it ought to serve as a kick in the pants to the rest of us, an inspiration to make use of tools that will do some real good. Let’s leverage their energy into effective methods. So think. Learn about the issues. Learn about corporate governance. Advocate reform. Organize. Get out the vote. If Occupying Wall Street is to have any real impact, it won’t be by motivating a few hundred more people to camp out in the street.

Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based ethicaloil.org, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

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Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Reverse Discrimination in High-Profile Hiring

Discrimination has a bad name, in part because what we typically mean by the word “discrimination” is more like “unjustified discrimination” or “discrimination on morally-irrelevant grounds.” But discrimination per se — even discrimination based on normally-irrelevant characteristics like race or disability — is not always bad. In a very few cases, discrimination is rooted in bona fide job requirements. The classic example is that it’s OK to discriminate against the visually impaired if you’re hiring pilots; having good eye-sight is a bona fide requirement for being a pilot. Being white, on the other hand, is not.

For a recent controversy over reverse discrimination (or rather over a failure to engage in such discrimination) see this recent case from Halifax, Nova Scotia. By Clare Mellor, for the Chronicle Herald: Africville trust hiring prompts some anger: Choosing white minister ‘insulting’

Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation.

“I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist.

“Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.”

The trust was set up to establish a memorial to Africville, a major African-Nova Scotian community destroyed on the orders of Halifax officials in the 1960s.

The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position….

So-called “reverse discrimination” is challenging, ethically. Preferential hiring of individuals from historically-disadvantaged groups can be a ham-fisted way to right past wrongs. But in at least some cases — particularly cases involving high-profile positions — the symbolic significance of the job in question has to at least be considered. (A very similar controversy arose a couple of years ago, when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind hired its first non-blind CEO.)

The first thing to note about the Halifax / Africville case is that it’s not primarily a black-vs-white dispute. It’s clear that those who oppose the hire don’t speak for Halifax’s entire black community. The Board of Directors of the Africville Trust is the body that did the hiring, and although detailed information about the composition of the Board is hard to find, the article cited above does say that the Board “includes six representatives of the Africville [i.e., black] community.” That doesn’t change the fundamental ethical questions at stake, but it does sweep away any thought that this is just an us-vs-them debate.

It’s also worth pointing out a legal worry, here. Hiring based on race is generally wrong, and typically illegal. It’s not clear to me (a non-lawyer) that excluding non-blacks from consideration for a job like this would even be legal. Do the critics of this hire simply think that the job posting should have said “Whites Need Not Apply?” Likely not. But a subtler position is logically open to them, anyway, namely a position that says something like “if in doubt, give the job to the black candidate” (based perhaps on a presumption of greater personal understanding of the issues at stake). But again, I don’t know whether that would be legal. (Does anyone reading this know?) And surely no on really wants to settle, as one activist quoted in the story suggests, for a candidate who is merely “fully qualified”. After all, there might well be a number of “fully qualified” candidates, and so you’re still going to need to make a decision. And if the job is important, then we likely want it filled not just by someone qualified, but by the most qualified person.

But on the other hand, critics of this decision do have a point, and that has to do with the symbolic value that would attach to putting a black person in charge of the Africville Trust. It’s not hard to see that selecting a black man or woman for this kind of leadership role would send a certain kind of message, and maybe give black kids in Halifax another positive role-model, one more non-white individual occupying a position of prestige and influence.

All in all, I’m not sure what to think about this one. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this: if you think a case like this has a clear and simple answer, you’re probably not thinking about it hard enough.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name peta.xxx and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

The “BlackBerry Riots” — What Should RIM Do?

The intersection of social media with social unrest is a massive topic these days. Twitter has been credited with playing an important role in coordinating the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, and Facebook played a role in helping police track down culprits after the Vancouver hockey riots.

But the mostly-unstated truth behind these “technologies of the people” is that they are corporate technologies, ones developed, fostered, and controlled by companies. That means power for those companies. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Fast-forward to early August 2011. London is burning, and the riots have spread to a couple other major UK cities. The British government has called in a few thousand extra cops. And again, social media is playing a role. But this time the focus is specifically on Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry, and its use as a social networking tool. There have been all kinds of reports that the BlackBerry’s “BBM” messaging has been the tool of choice for coordination among London’s rioters. RIM is probably asking itself right now whether it’s really true that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

Distancing itself from its role in the “BlackBerry Riots,” RIM issued (via Twitter) the following:

We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.

The “in any way we can” part is intriguing. So, what can, and what should, RIM do? One thing they can do is to help authorities identify those inciting violence by breaking through the security of the BBM messages. But as reported here, “RIM refused to say exactly how much information it would be sharing with police.” The other, much more dramatic, thing that RIM could do would be to temporarily shut down all or part of its network. Whether that would be at all useful is open to question. It would certainly make a lot of people angry, including millions of people who are not involved in the riots, or who are relying on their BlackBerries to keep in touch with loved ones during this crisis. But I point out this option just to illustrate the breadth of options open to RIM.

The question is complicated by questions of precedence. Tech companies have come under fire for assisting governments in, for example, China, to crack down on dissidents. Of course, the UK government isn’t anything like China’s repressive regime. But at least some people are pointing to underlying social unrest, unemployment etc., in the UK as part of the reason — if not justification — for the riots. And besides, even if it’s clear that the UK riots are unjustifiable and that the UK government is a decent one, companies like RIM are global companies, engaged in a whole spectrum of social and political settings, ones that will stubbornly refuse to be categorized. Should a tech company help a repressive regime stifle peaceful protest? No. Should a tech company help a good and just government fight crime? Yes. But with regard to governments, as with regard to social unrest, there’s much more grey in the world than black and white.

Pepsi Under Pressure

It’s not easy selling carbonated sugar-water. Or rather, the selling part is all too easy. The hard part is steering a course between the conflicting desires of shareholders and activists. Shareholders want profits. That means selling more of high-profit-margin products like Pepsi and Doritos. Activists want companies to stop pushing unhealthy products like Pepsi and Doritos, and to focus on healthier — but less profitable — products.

See this story, by Mike Esterl and Valerie Bauerlein, for the WSJ: PepsiCo Wakes Up and Smells the Cola

…The snack-food and beverage giant is launching the first new advertising campaign for its flagship Pepsi-Cola in three years—offering one of the most visible signs PepsiCo is throwing new weight behind its biggest brand after it sank to No. 3 in U.S. soda sales last year, trailing not only Coke but Diet Coke….

When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand….

There’s a lesson here for activists who think that reforming corporate behaviour is a simple matter of willpower, that companies can shift to healthier foods (or to less-violent video games) if only they had the guts to try it. Shifting your business practices in a way not endorsed by consumers is, well, a recipe for disaster.

Then again, maybe that’s a pretty decent outcome, from an activist’s point of view.

What’s the long-term prognosis? An ebb and flow of corporate strategy, in response to a range of pressures. Activists will win a few battles, as well as surely losing a few. Forcing companies to do what you want means forcing consumers to consume what you want. Because as everyone in business knows, while it’s simply not true that “the customer is always right,” it surely is true that the customer is always the customer.

Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil?

Girl Guide CookiesIs nothing sacred? What could be more pure and innocent and hard-to-object-to than delicious bite-sized cookies sold, door-to-door, by happy-faced young girls trying to raise money to support a wonderful not-for-profit organization?

Well, apparently nothing is safe from criticism. Girl Guide cookies, as it turns out, are under attack for being made with palm oil, a tropical oil the production of which has been blamed for deforestation and for endangering the habitat of orangutans. Girl Scout cookies, in their current form, are apparently evil.

Dammit.

Here’s the story as reported by Tara Kelly, blogging for Time: Do Girl Scout Cookies Harm the Environment? Renegade Scouts Fight Against Palm Oil Ingredient

…now two renegade girl scouts are lobbying the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient from the cookies.
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are high school sophomores, stopped selling Girl Scout cookies in 2007 after they began working on a public service project to bring attention to the plight of endangered orangutans in Borneo. To ramp up their efforts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make the change a reality….

OK, OK. So I’ve long realized that Girl Scout Cookies (a.k.a. “Girl Guide Cookies,” here in Canada) are evil, but only in roughly the same way that any addict realizes that the object of his desire is evil. Every year I buy quite a few boxes of GG Cookies (the mint wafer kind, thank you very much) and hoard them, hiding them from family and friends, to enjoy them one-by-delicious-one.

A few random thoughts about the ethical issues here:

1) This is a lovely example of why not-for-profit organizations fall squarely within the bailiwick of business ethics, even if they’re not “businesses” as that term is traditionally conceived. (According to Time, by the way, the Girl Scouts annually sell nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worth of their delicious baked goods.) I suspect that Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, is finding out that even a not-for-profit cannot hide its head in the sand when faced with criticism of its supply chain.

2) Sometimes (but only sometimes) evil comes from trying to do good. Time notes the reason for the existence of palm oil in the cookies:

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans-fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Tomkins. “In order to rid cookies of trans-fats, you had to find another alternative.” That alternative is palm oil.

So, the cookies are less-environmentally-friendly because of efforts to make them better for your arteries. Is there a win-win alternative out there? Maybe, but that cannot be assumed. It may well be that some sort of tradeoff is going to be required. So, ask yourself: which do you care about more…your arteries or the orangutans? (“Pssst! You’ve got cookie crumbs on your tie!”)

3) The main reason that Girl Scouts USA makes such a good target for criticism (in addition to its prominence) is of course precisely the organization’s clean-cut, do-gooding image. In other words, the organization is vulnerable to criticisms that would simply be shrugged off by whatever anonymous company makes the cookies sold in the bulk-food aisle of the grocery store. The Girl Scouts have an image to protect, and, other things being equal, this means they are more likely to be responsive to pressure. But then, that image has been earned, and critics may well find that the public would rather continue to support a favourite charitable organization than learn about a new set of ethical issues focused on the effects such support could have in far-away lands. That doesn’t mean that the anti-cookie campaign can’t get traction. It just means that when the battle is good cause versus good cause, the outcome is hard to predict, and it’s not clear whether there can even be winners.

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Hat tip to NW, for pointing me to this excellent story.

Pink Toenails, Gender Identity and Social Responsibility

This one’s a real tempest in a teapot. Or rather, in a bottle of nail polish.

OK, so here’s the short version. Clothing chain J. Crew’s latest catalog includes a picture of president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son’s toenails pink. Yes, pink — the colour most closely associated, in North American culture, at least, with traditional femininity. Criticism ensued, alleging that J. Crew was acting (intentionally!) to promote a gender-bending agenda. The calibre and cogency of the arguments in favour of that conclusion is about what you’d expect.

The main critic, Fox commentator and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow, provides an object lesson in how to cram as many argumentative fallacies as possible into a single piece of writing, in his oddly-titled editorial, “J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious arguments:

He alleges, without substantiation, that pink-toenail-painting is highly likely to result in gender confusion. In the absence of supporting evidence, we are expected to believe him because he’s got “Dr” in front of his name — essentially a form of illicit appeal to authority. He also engages in straw man argumentation (in which a critic attacks something his opponent never said nor implied), by suggesting that, via this ad, “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” [my emphasis]. He also begs the question by assuming that pink is just for girls (and I’m wearing pink as I write this, by the way). He also has an unfortunate tendency to resort to rhetorical questions: “If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?” (What if my answer is “nothing”? Ablow provides nothing to help me, then.) Ablow also commits the fallacy known as appeal to ignorance when he points out that the effect of “homogenizing males and females … is not known” (i.e., we don’t know that it’s safe, so it is probably unsafe.) He also makes use of an illicit slippery slope argument, suggesting comically that ads such as this are somehow going to result in the end of all procreation, and, hence, of the human race. And Ablow’s argument as a whole amounts to one giant, fallacious, appeal to tradition. I could quite literally teach the entire Fallacies section of my Critical Thinking class just by having students pick apart Ablow’s critique of the J. Crew ad.

(Note that another critic, Erin Brown, over at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, commits fewer fallacies, but only because her article is shorter. But then she apparently doen’t even know what J. Crew is, referring to the men’s and women’s clothier as a “popular preppy woman’s clothing brand.” I happen to own two J. Crew ties. Men’s ties.)

Now, my response to the critics of J. Crew’s ad may seem flippant. So be it. Sometimes ridicule is the best response to something ridiculous. But there is a serious point to be made, here, about the social responsibility of business.

Ablow and Brown share one important view in common with many critics of modern capitalism, namely this: they all believe that businesses have an obligation to pursue certain social agendas. They merely disagree over what that agenda should be. For Ablow and Brown, the social obligation of business is to defend & promote good ol’-fashioned American values, including apparently carefully scripted gender roles. For critics of capitalism, the social obligation of business is to promote social justice, environmental values, gender equality, and so on. In either case, those who urge businesses to adopt social missions — as opposed to merely making and selling stuff that people want to buy, within the bounds of law and ethics — ought to be careful what they wish for. Because if and when businesses do take up social agendas, they may not be the agendas that those advocates prefer.

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Thanks to Laura for showing me this story.

HuffPo, AOL and the Ethics of Unpaid Labour

AOL bought the Huffington Post this week. Now, many of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers are up in arms, accusing the left-leaning news-and-aggregation site of two related crimes: selling out to a (presumably) evil corporate media giant, and failing to share the wealth with thousands of volunteer bloggers who, over the years, have contributed probably millions of words to HuffPo’s archive of content.

But criticism was not limited to the volunteer bloggers themselves. Tim Rutton, of the LA Times, wrote:

To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates….

Adbusters — the slightly-past-its-best-before-date organization whose sole purpose is to bash capitalism and consumerism — put it this way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp….

On the face of it, this sounds like a strong criticism. Use unpaid labour to build a truly massive (and profitable) online presence. Keep that unpaid labour in the fold by espousing values they believe in. And then sell out for hundreds of millions to a corporation that almost certainly could not care less about the aforementioned values. It really does sound tantamount to slavery, with a touch of ideological treason thrown in for good measure. But to understand this better, we need to know a little more about the economics of blogging. As a good starting point, see this piece by stats guru Nate Silver: The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post

The fact is, however, that sentiments like [the LA Times’s] Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much….

Silver goes on to be much more specific, calculating the likely dollar value of the contribution of the average volunteer HuffPo Blogger.

The point is that for something over 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby. The contribution of most HuffPo bloggers to the website’s success is minimal. Those thousands of volunteer bloggers on whose “backs” HuffPo was supposedly built were likely more important as audience than as generators of content. Should the volunteer bloggers feel jilted? I’m reminded of a commercial from a few years back, in which a mom consoles her 8-year-old boy whose team just lost a game of soccer or hockey or something. “Did you try your hardest?”, asks the mom. “And did you have a good time? That’s all that really matters.”

Of course, if the volunteer bloggers are worried about the integrity of HuffPo’s editorial voice, you would think they would be somewhat consoled by the fact that Arianna Huffington is retaining the reins in that regard, and in fact will be gaining the key editorial role at AOL as a whole. But then, that’s reason why the rest of us should be deeply concerned, given Huffington’s penchant for featuring dangerously bad pieces related to things like healthcare, including some that are the intellectual equivalent of evolution denial.

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