Selling ourselves short

I love social media. I enjoy Twitter and Pinterest. I read dozens of blogs. I ditched Facebook but certainly used it for several years.

What I don’t love is how corporations are weaseling their wares into my personal conversations. And I really don’t love how complicit some of my online friends are in this process.

Long ago, in a world where there were newspapers and magazines and three television channels, ads came for paid sources. Companies would buy space or time on conventional media to promise us that we’d be richer, thinner, taller, hairier, less hairy, smarter, and more popular if we bought their products.

People grew weary of these approaches. Companies tried new tactics. They put their cereals quietly on a shelf in Seinfeld’s fake kitchen. They had celebrities use their sun lotion on a lovely Malibu beach.

The goal and basic message was the same. “Pay us money and you’ll be happier.”

Now, with social media, companies are paying regular people to shill their products. But they’re paying much less than they ever paid newspapers and they’re changing the way we read what friends write.

The basic premise? “‘Like’ our Facebook page and get a coupon. Then all your friends see that you like us. You’re advertising to 100 or 200 or 800 people, and all we give you is $5 off a sandwich.”

Same tune, different channel. “Here’s a great recipe using all our crappy products as ingredients. Pin it on your Pinterest boards and all your friends will do the same. In exchange, you get a delightfully transparent adverecipe. Free!”

Wanting to get their brand trending on Twitter, which gets them a front page advertisement on every screen using the site, companies come up with ridiculous contests. “Tweet our name a lot and we’ll enter you in a drawing. The winner gets a few dollars. You give us free advertising and there might be a trinket in it for you.”

I’m sick of seeing blogs and boards and feeds get covered in corporate slime, especially when I know the people (whom I used to trust) only got a few pennies, if anything, in exchange for interrupting my social media day.

Today was the last straw. I just got a form email from an author whose books I really respect. Paraphrasing, he said, “My new book is coming out. Think you’ll like it.” Fine. Makes sense. Advertise to the people who already like your work. That’s an ad I welcome.

But the email continued.

“I’m going to put together a marketing team of really smart people like you. If you’re selected for this highly respected team, you’ll conceive of and execute my marketing for me. And I’ll give you a free book!”

So I do all the work and you give me…a book. Son, people get paid tens of thousands of dollars to come up with marketing campaigns. I’m not doing one for you for a token of appreciation.

It’s a long walk off a rotten pier.

Aside from being mad at being undervalued, though I am, I’m really angry at how these marketing schemes cost relationships. I see a blogger I really like and respect start shilling diapers. Or books. Or pumpkin pie filling. Doesn’t matter what the product is. I stop reading as often, I stop trusting what I read, and I stop visiting their blog.

One reader isn’t a big deal. One online relationship dead is not, either.

What matters is that the companies are playing us like fiddles. They get free advertising *and* a sneaky inroad into places marketing isn’t expected. I follow people on Twitter because I want their voices. Not their ads for credit cards.

The companies think they’ll benefit from the trust I have in my social network. I’ve been reading Sue’s blog for five years, so when she sells out to Frozen Fish Sticks Company I’m supposed to be more likely to trust FFSCo as much as I trust Sue.

But I see through you, Frozen Fish Sticks marketing team. I’m pretty sure I don’t trust Sue less because of her deal with Frozen Fish Sticks Company. I know Sue wants to be heard and wants to be paid. But I’m also pretty sure they’re not paying Sue what she is worth. I’m pretty sure all she got out of the chance to annoy me and make me think about visiting her blog less often is a box of frozen fish sticks.

You’re better than that, Sue.

I understand the draw. A lot of people want to feel needed. They want their writing seen by more people and they want to get paid.

Excellent goals.

But getting a nickel to do work that should be paid two hundred dollars isn’t a win for anyone except the corporation that just saved $199.95.

But who am I to tell people to stop writing two-cent ads on Twitter? I forward links to books and magazine articles. The authors and publishers don’t ask me to. They don’t know I’m going to do it. But if I blog that I liked a book, that’s advertising, too. Why draw a distinction between (nominally) paid ads and personal opinion that might drive sales?


Maybe I’m grumpy. Or feeling guilty. Soon I’m going to try the aggregating-commercial-site thing that all the kids are doing these days. I’m going to put some of my posts on other sites for free to see what happens.

But I wonder how much that process cheapens what I’ve stood for all these years. I know better than to let my work get away for less than I’m worth.

So why do it?

I still don’t know. I can say that the ads on the sites where most bloggers are aggregated are standard, expected, and usually ignored. It’s like performing on a street corner and being surrounded by billboards. This is simply our online landscape.

But I think it’s really because writers are, at heart, applause whores. We’ll sell our soul to be told we’re good. That’s why we sell ourselves short by selling products, ideas, and companies for far too little.

And in agreeing to have my posts on aggregating sites I’m probably doing exactly that for which I’m thinking of unfollowing other people: shilling crap that nobody needs in exchange for less than I’m worth.

Oh, well. Here’s some Lloyd Dobler to enjoy while you eat your fish sticks. Remember when we were this idealistic? Yeah. Me, too.