Social Media Ethics - when is a ghost blog not a ghost blog?

NOTE: This is one of a bunch of posts that got stuck in the tubes when I was suffering my recent extended blog outage (bloggage?). I wrote it, hit publish, but it never saw the light of day. It refers to an unconference session I participated in way back on November 12. I'm not going to bother publishing all of the pieces that got stuck, but this one covers a topic that still interests me, so I thought I'd chuck it out there. My colleague Dave Fleet already blogged on this subject, here. My original, unedited post follows below:

So. Earlier this week, I presented alongside my esteemed and genuinely marvelous colleague, Dave Fleet, at the second Talk is Cheap unconference hosted by Centennial College here in Toronto. Excellent evening - must have been at least 150 people in attendance - all eager to listen, learn and share interesting stuff.

Dave and I chose as the topic for our 20-minute session The Ethics of Social Media - thinking we'd spend our time digging into the juicy topics of astroturfing, ghost blogging, online personae, and clients who freak out over their Wikipedia entries.

Alas, 20 minutes turned out to be just way too little time to do any more than just scratch the surface of this stuff. Well, that plus I tend to talk too much. Apologies to our audience (and to my long-suffering co-presenter) that we ran out of time.

To compensate, I've uploaded our (mercifully brief) slide deck to Slideshare, here. Not sure quite how much use the slides our without our commentary over the top, but I'm more than happy to walk through this stuff with anyone who's interested - just drop me a comment here or email me (my email address is right at the foot of the page).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion we got into tonight was on the issue of ghost blogging. It's a tricky area for PR people this one - the typical thread of debate whenever this issue comes up tends to wind it's way through a number of points:

1. Ghost blogging is a concept in conflict with the nature of the medium;

2. A ghost blogger is someone who writes and publishes posts under someone else's name, typically a paid writer contributing updates on behalf of a corporate exec or other client front man;

3. So almost by definition, ghost blogging is inauthentic, opaque, fake, duplicitous (<-- insert favourite synonym here). It's everything that this splendid authentic, transparent, open, honest social media stuff is NOT supposed to be about; 4. I think it's wrong, it's ethically dubious, and it puts your reputation at risk. You shouldn't do it; 5. But hang on a second - PR folk write speeches for their clients to deliver all the time. We write those wooden, stilted quotations in news releases. We draft all kinds of materials on behalf of clients, but no one's ever supposed to know it was us that wrote them - not the client themselves; 6. Harrumph; 7. How is what we get paid to do every day any less dodgy than ghost blogging?

Good question.

Again, we only scratched the surface of this tonight. I think there are a couple of points of difference worth noting. Disclaimer: I'm doing my thinking out loud here in an effort to better understand and articulate what, to me, is a simple gut feel thing. Apologies in advance for the huge gaps in my argument and the very real chance that my entire reasoning is specious.

First, when we write a speech or something of the sort for one of our clients, the authenticity is injected at the point of delivery. In other words, the client takes ownership of the text we provided - they implicitly and (we hope) explicitly approve of the words we've put into their mouth.

One good example of this from recent weeks, of course, is Barack Obama. We know his speeches are a collaborative effort, built through cooperation between Jon Favreau and a small team of writers. But when he stands up to deliver the finished product, we know they're his words, coming directly from the heart and mind of the extraordinary man he is.

Actually - given the amount of thought and work Obama contributes to his speeches, perhaps he's not the best example here. The point is, though, that when that politician, corporate exec or community leader stands up behind the podium, even if the words were not penned by them, they are making a direct and explicit commitment to the audience by being there and delivering the speech their tired flack handed in at 2am that morning.

I think most reasonably well educated folk are sophisticated enough to realise that, while the speaker may not have written their speech, we expect and believe that they mean it.

Plus, of course, we can see them. If 65,000 people had showed up in Grant Park to be greeted by a sock puppet speaking in an imitation of Obama's voice - I think we'd have had a problem. Again, maybe a PR guy writes the words, but there's the dude delivering them, right there in front of us.

In the general web and social media world, things are very different. There's no easy way for us to know that the witty and insightful thoughts your CEO just posted to the corporate blog were ever actually thought by him or her. We can't know whether they wrote the post themselves, whether they approved it and pushed the publish button, or whether they've even read the stuff that goes out under their name.

Of course, if they're not plugged in enough to take an active interest in the words that appear over their signature, they're probably not fit to be running the organization in the first place, but that's another matter.

But again - PR people have ghost-written contributed articles for their clients for years. No one gets their knickers in a bunch over that (well, no one on my side of the table, anyway). So why do I have such an issue with the idea of a ghost-written blog?

I think, in part, it's to do with the engagement. First, let's stipulate: a blog that doesn't include and encourage active discussion is not a blog. No comments, no permalinks, trackbacks, etc. Not a blog.

The whole point of this thing is that it's now a two-way web - you post something, I comment, you pick up on my comment and post some more, linking to someone else's follow up post, then another bloke wanders in and refutes my comment also linking out to yet another person's contribution.

It's a conversation.

So when your CEO posts something of interest to me, and I respond, I want to know that the person I'm in conversation with is the actual person who thought those thoughts in the first place.

If I raise my hand at the end of a speech and pop a difficult question, the best speech-writer in the world won't help the person behind the podium. That's direct, authentic engagement right there.

If I pop the same tricky question into a comment in a blog post, and your response goes through seven layers of spinning, word-smithing, sanitation, legal review and exec approval before it shows up - that's ersatz and, I'd suggest, likely to be sniffed out. You can't fake authenticity. To paraphrase John Gilmore, the blogosphere interprets spin as damage and routes around it.

It's this conversational element that's the critical thing here. To be clear: I really don't mind if your CEO isn't the greatest writer in the world and needs some help saying what they mean in a coherent fashion. We're all required, expected, to be writers these days - email has made it necessary for all of us to write all of the time, and the wonderful democratizing power of the read-write Web allows anyone to post and publish their writings for all the world to see. Problem: everyone is a writer, precious few of the buggers can actually write.

Some assistance editing or drafting what your CEO ultimately posts is no big deal. But they'd better be the person at the figurative podium when we're asking our questions. If your corporate blog is entirely the product of a paid ghost, then where's the there there?

Going back to tonight's conference session, here's where things started to get really interesting. A question was raised, by Jay Moonah, if memory serves, about our feelings towards ghost-tweeting. Using the example of the Stephen Harper and Barack Obama Twitter accounts that were used to provide a steady stream of updates during the recent Canadian and US election campaigns, the question: is ghost-tweeting on behalf of someone else as ethically dubious as ghost-blogging?

For reasons I'm not doing a terribly good job of explaining, I'm not sure it is - at least when the individual in question is a very high profile figure, such as Obama, Harper, or McCain.

When I "followed" the Barack Obama account on Twitter (and, like many people, got that tiny and, frankly, rather pathetic frisson of excitement to be followed in return), at no time did I ever think it was actually Barack Obama whose stream of micro-blog posts I'd be reading. And I was OK with that.

I can see how this could be used for ill, of course - but I think there's a certain willing suspension of disbelief here, or a kind of pact we implicitly accept when signing up to follow the Twitter stream of someone like the future president of the US or the PM of Canada.

We don't really think that we're going to be getting a steady flow of 140-character updates direct from the keyboard of the democratic nominee himself. We know it's his campaign account, and that some designated member of the campaign is posting the updates. But - in my case, at least - we identify the entire campaign so strongly with the man himself that we're happy to sign up to follow the idea of Obama.

I'm not even remotely irked by the thought that the 263 messages sent to Twitter by "Barack Obama" over the past several months were almost certainly not posted by Barack. Frankly, I'm more bothered by the fact that the posts ran dry the day after his successful election. I'm still getting regular daily emails from the DNC and Obama campaign staffers - but not a sausage in the Twitter stream since November 5th, dammit.

Still. The debate around this point was, I thought, the most interesting part of the night. I think I could successfully argue the point either way, given time to think it through. For now - curious to know what you think.

Is ghost-blogging an absolute ethical wrong? Is ghost-micro-blogging somehow less wrong, or am I mincing my mores? How do we navigate the grey area here?