Yesterday afternoon I checked my e-mail and found something from the ScienceBlogs management. Apparently there was to be a new blog around here sponsored by PepsiCo. that was to focus on nutrition and other food related issues. I only skimmed the e-mail and did not really think much about it. I am still on blog vacation, after all, and I wanted to get back to my other work.
Later in the day I decided it was time for a break. Figured I’d check in with my favorite Science Blogs and see if anything was happening. Turns out, something was.
Apparently a lot of my fellow bloggers were up in arms about the new blog. To the point where several decided they must leave ScienceBlogs in disgust. Phrases like “corporate sleaze” and “incompetence” were being thrown around. Apparently there was massive disrespect shown by management towards their bloggers. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges from Airplane, looks like I picked the wrong week to take a break from blogging.
I won’t rehash here the ethical issues raised by the blog. They have been adequately discussed elsewhere, and I am sure you do not need me to explain them to you. It was certainly a bad blurring of the line between editorial and advertising content. The idea of having a major corporation buy blog space under the same banner that houses “real” science blogs is not very appealing, to put it kindly. It seemed a bit galling that one of the biggest producers of junk food in the nation was going to be blogging about nutrition.
On the other hand, we have had corporate blogs around here before without any major histrionics. They usually do not last long, and they are very easy to ignore. The PepsiBlog was clearly labeled as “Advertorial” and its affiliation with Pepsi could hardly be missed. (Apparently this was not the case when it first went public, which explains part of the anger directed towards it). There was also the fact that they had not posted anything beyond a brief introduction. I wanted to read some actual content before passing judgment. In principle there is a good blog to be written by food scientists in industry, and I do not think it is fair to dismiss their contributors out of hand simply because they worked for Pepsi. If it turned out to be the asinine propaganda blog everyone feared then it would quickly die for lack of readers.
And then there is the most obvious point of all. We are in the midst of a major economic downturn and the publishing industry has been especially hard hit. It takes money to keep the lights on around here, and sometimes that means tolerating some things you would rather not tolerate.
Today it was announced that the blog had been nixed. I am not sorry to see it go, though I do worry about what it portends for the financial health of Science Blogs. The folks at Seed Media Group have put together something amazing here. It was downright visionary when they first conceived the idea of assembling a stable of first-rate bloggers writing about virtually every aspect of science. I was honored to be chosen among the earliest bloggers here. I have never regretted my decision to join, including after this little dust-up.
I am decidedly less impressed with the petulance and self-righteousness of some of my fellow bloggers. The nattering about how our credibility as bloggers was threatened by the PepsiBlog strikes me as terribly overwrought. I very much doubt that anyone is confused about our status as a loose confederation of independent bloggers, or seriously worries that somehow the content of our blogs is being influenced by outside corporate interests. Perhaps I am naive, but I simply am not worried that anyone will see one of my posts on science and religion and wonder if I am just parroting the lines of the corporation that owns me.
Nor am I impressed by complaints that this is emblematic of the disrespect shown to us little guys by our corporate masters. Certainly this could have been handled better, but there is a perfectly non-sinister explanation for why it was not. I do not believe this was a matter of management trying to sneak something past us, or of them trying to force something down our throats. I think they just genuinely underestimated the hostile reaction the blog would receive. My guess is they figured that they routinely add new blogs here or start new initiatives, and most of the time they meet with nary a peep. They probably saw the PepsiBlog as little different from other corporate blogs we have hosted here and didn’t think it merited any special fanfare. It was an error in judgment, and one that has now been rectified. But I think the people picking up their toys and going home are looking for insults where none were intended.
I have always viewed my blog merely as a hobby, so perhaps I can afford to be more cavalier than some. For those who see their blogs as a journalistic enterprise, or who have substantial professional interests invested in their blog, I can see why they might react more strongly to this than I have. All I can say is that from my perspective this seems like much ado about very little.
Plenty of my SciBlings have been writing about this. Chad Orzel aptly summarizes my own views. Abel Pharmboy explains how things ought to have been handled. Josh Rosenau has a useful and non-histrionic post summarizing the problems with the blog. And erv has an interesting post presenting a more cynical view of the outrage.
Perhaps one good thing has come out of this. My passion for blogging, which has been on the wane in recent weeks, has suddenly been reawakened. Suddenly seeing your peeps attacked will do that to you!