The Ethics of Blogging
When I use the term ethical blogger, what do you think of?
I use it to mean bloggers who write about ethics, and more specifically those who subscribe to and promote a conscientious consumer lifestyle.
This, admittedly, reveals a specificity in meaning that isn’t apparent at all by the term itself. When I say ethical in this context, I am really only talking about a topic, not about an overarching set of values that inform the way we ethical bloggers conduct our marketing, interactions, writing, and business decisions.
But if we subscribe to an ethical consumer lifestyle and promote social justice, shouldn’t we be obligated to live by a set of standards that make us stand out from the crowd of conventional bloggers? Put another way, if we claim to value holistic ethics (to paraphrase MLK, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”), shouldn’t we extend that to strategy?
The online ethical community (including brands and consumers of both media and material goods) should confront this head on by asking the following questions.
Should ethical brands and bloggers use automated programs to grow their followings?
There’s been some discussion recently among small groups of ethical bloggers on the topic of using automated services that like content on your behalf on Instagram.
While there’s generally some discomfort around using these programs because they obscure authentic engagement, a surprisingly large amount of ethical lifestyle bloggers and brands have been and still are using this tactic to increase their Instagram followings (full disclosure: I have trialed automated tools). While some readily disclose their use of such tools, a significant number are shy or unwilling to admit it, which, to me, is telling of moral ambiguity if not outright unethical behavior.
Automated tools are not allowed according to Instagram’s terms of service, but that doesn’t necessarily make the practice existentially bad. The problem is that engagement doesn’t mean much when robo-you is liking me and robo-me is liking you. If we are pretending to value these metrics, we need to be up front about how we’re arriving at our numbers.
In any case, according to this article, if an account you’re following frequently appears in the Likes > Following tab with an indication that they’ve interacted with 8 posts within a few seconds and if their following increases by hundreds of people every few days, chances are they’re using an automation tool.
(This question is different from, “Should ethical bloggers and brands buy followers?” A significant portion of people in this space would confidently say, “no.” But that doesn’t mean that some larger accounts haven’t purchased them, I just don’t know people who’ve admitted they have.)
Should ethical brands and bloggers copy the aesthetic, name, logo, or concept of another business?
From pictures to post topics to entire apps, ethical businesses and bloggers have blatantly plagiarized the intellectual property of their peers. One blogger took the entire concept of a blog, including her writing team, from another blogger. One brand blatantly created the same product to solve the same problem in the ethical space, then rushed to advertise before the original company could scale.
When I mentioned the second case to a fellow blogger, she said, “that’s just how the market works.” And sure, she’s right. But just because Capitalism allows this behavior doesn’t mean it’s ethical or responsible. Ethical bloggers and brands love the idea of #collaborationovercompetition, but they seem awfully determined toward individual success sometimes.
Should ethical brands and bloggers charge market rates for blog and social media posts?
A lot of bloggers now enter this space with the intention of making blogging their full time business. This isn’t necessarily bad, but going into this when you’re all business frames things differently than if you entered as a hobby. Conventional bloggers with high readership can make a six figure income through brand collaborations. This, again, is pure Capitalism. They make that money because brands consider bloggers to be viable marketing avenues. But is there a point where we’re asking for too much money?
There are very few ethical bloggers making enough money to go full time, but that will certainly change within the next few years. My gut sense is that ethical bloggers have an obligation to make price determinations based on something more than market standards, but I don’t have a very good idea of what other factors to consider, outside of ensuring that we’re not bleeding ethical brands dry with our rates. Hannah at Life Style Justice has discussed this off an on within the context of fairness. As contract employees of ethical and fair trade brands, what should we consider a fair wage for ourselves?
(To clarify, I’m thinking of an upper limit, not a lower limit, to our work. I believe that bloggers who treat their blogs as a business and have proven themselves influential in the space deserve to make a living wage.)
Should ethical brands and bloggers disclose partnerships according to FTC guidelines?
This isn’t up for debate: the answer is yes. But I frequently see ethical bloggers (and their brand partners) obscuring partnerships. I’m sure that sometimes this is just out of ignorance (full disclosure: I’m still not sure I’m disclosing properly on Instagram), but increasingly I suspect that some do this in hopes that readers will trust them more if they don’t realize they’re taking part in paid partnerships.
Should ethical bloggers promote products they could never afford in real life?
If I promote a clearance event, my commission on sales is going to be pretty low. If I promote a $400 coat, I could make $40 when you purchase it through my affiliate link. The business savvy decision is to promote the coat. But is that ethical?
This is something I am not at all decided on. For myself, I try to select brand partnerships and choose products in shopping guides that are within a comfortable price range for my income level even if I’m not actually purchasing the product (full disclosure: I personally make $35,000, give or take, including my day job and freelance work).
But there are bloggers I’ve been following for some time who, over the years, have gone from promoting thrift shop goods to reviewing multi-hundred dollar pants, shoes, and accessories. Still fairly made and eco-conscious, of course, but representative of a totally different lifestyle and income bracket. If you can command the attention of readers in higher income brackets, your blog-based income will soar. But where does that leave everyone else? And does our promotion of near-luxury goods encourage unhealthy financial stewardship?
Should ethical bloggers promote their work as better than the work of other ethical bloggers?
This, thankfully, happens rarely, but when it does, it annoys the crap out of me.
An ethical blogger will say something like, “I’m a writer, not a blogger.” “I focus on well researched posts, not fluff pieces.” “I was blogging on sustainability before it was cool.” “I have done this, this, and this, so I’m really practicing what I preach.” “My readers trust me, just look at my page views.”
The implication in any of the above cases is that some ethical bloggers are just not worth your time. It’s an attempt to build rabid loyalty and discourage readers and brands from cultivating relationships with supposedly lesser bloggers and blog concepts. But readers and brands are not unintelligent. They don’t need us to tell them who is in and who is out. I understand the impulse to differentiate – after all, that’s a fundamental part of building a brand – but does it need to be so…mean girls?
Are ethical bloggers beholden to radical transparency?
And the final question, for now. For my own peace of mind, I tend to lean toward yes on this. The best way for me to frame my own work is to continually “confess” to the community. Blame it on my Evangelical upbringing – I love to admit my faults (you think I’m joking, but I’m not).
But I also want to entertain the idea that bloggers are not obligated to tell readers every little thing they do behind the scenes. And some readers actually feel uncomfortable with tell alls. For instance, less than half of Reader Survey respondents wanted to see monthly or quarterly Blog Transparency reports. This surprised me since it seems that the ethical blogging community is headed toward this degree of transparency, but it was helpful to know that cultivating a sense of trust over time is more important than running the numbers every few weeks.
I haven’t developed concrete opinions on all topics listed here, but I’m curious to know if you’ve thought about this and what your opinions are. Please comment and share with anyone who can help this community work through hard questions.
It seems to me that ethical bloggers and brands of every stripe and creed have voluntarily obligated themselves to live by more rigid standards. And surely that must mean brand and business strategy. If it doesn’t, it seems that ethical has begun to lose its meaning.