New FTC blogger-disclosure requirements

The vast majority of bloggers have no involvement in payola schemes, but often find themselves in situations where they could be accused of it.

The Internet Patrol has a detailed explanation of the new Federal Trade Commission rules affecting bloggers who write product reviews or endorsements. The bottom line:

“If you talk about a product or service, and if you put it out on or via the Internet, and if you stand to gain on it, you’d better disclose that relationship.”

I’m not a fan of the rules, but I certainly don’t intend to run afoul of them. They are designed to clamp down on bloggers whose positive comments about a company’s product or service result from undisclosed payments from that company.

But I continue to be puzzled by why the government, which has allowed mortgage con artists to rip off consumers to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, is so excited about protecting web users from inflated reviews of electronic gadgets and resort hotels. My objections:

1. It’s fairly easy to go online and find product reviews from reputable online sources or from sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor that allow unbiased customer comments. Having the FTC jump in to protect people who ignore those resources and instead make their purchasing decisions by reading Joe-the-Blogger is pure nannying.

2. Bloggers who give bad products or services good ratings will rapidly lose credibility, thereby scuttling their own reputations, popularity, and search rankings.

3. The vast majority of bloggers have no involvement in payola schemes, but often find themselves in situations where they could be accused of it. Try this scenario: I write a positive review of my hair stylist. A few months later, he sends a friend to me to have her website content written. That develops into a lucrative contract. If I don’t remember to go back to my blog post and update it with an explanation that he has sent business to me, I could be accused of getting a kick-back for my positive review of him. (FTC fine: up to $11,000.)

I think the online system polices itself. If the government wants to get into the consumer protection business, I’d suggest they do something about the company that sent me an official-looking letter yesterday telling me that my mortgage terms had changed and I needed to call them immediately.

Something new! Let’s all panic.

A post by Clark Humphrey on MiscMedia alerted me to A Better Pencil by English professor Dennis Baron; in the book, Baron asserts that the Internet is making us smarter, and better communicators.

From Vincent Rossmeier’s Salon interview with Baron:

“I start with Plato’s critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They’re not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down — the ultimate irony.”

Practicing change

Sometimes change comes about through persistent lobbying and mediation, but often it happens because a couple of people with hides like armadillos, plenty of energy, and a good sense of timing, push the changes through.

Those you who have worked with me know that I thrive on change.

My mother once accused me of moving every few years because I enjoyed it. I do. I liked being a newspaper reporter because I frequently got to work on a different story every day.

I think change keeps you flexible, and quick, and alive.

But as much as I like change, I don’t like being in groups that are contemplating change. Too often, they remind me of people at the beach, who approach the water’s edge, stick in one toe, and repeat the process dozens of times before they finally lumber into the depths.

Five minutes later they are splashing around raving about how fantastic the water is.

Watching them drives me crazy.

I’ve been working recently with several groups grappling with change, and have these observations:

  • Most people resist change and want to protect the status quo.This is so fierce, it must be instinctive.
  • The same people who spend hours trying to block change and predicting its dire consequences are often perfectly happy with the state of things after the change they opposed has taken place.
  • Sometimes change comes about through persistent lobbying and mediation, but often it happens because a couple of people with hides like armadillos, plenty of energy, and a good sense of timing, push the changes through.
  • Sometimes change happens because the biggest opponent of change dies, or leaves town, and suddenly the culture of resistance he’d been nurturing just dries up and blows away.
  • The element people want to change (or to keep the same) is related to a lot of other elements that very few people think about, or perceive. Once the primary element changes, lots of other factors change. Whole new vistas open up — including some pretty scary ones.

The big problem with nonprofits’ websites

Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list.

A sizeable chunk of my business is the development of content for websites. I write websites from scratch and I work on redesigns.

A few months ago I realized that, while all web design projects have their frustrations, there were some telling differences between the redesign projects for nonprofits and those for businesses. A few examples:

• Businesses typically want redesigns because an existing site doesn’t meet certain performance goals; nonprofits want redesigns because their sites are confusing, out of date, or unattractive.

• Business site redesigns are led by someone at the company’s director level; nonprofit site redesigns are usually led by committees made up of line staff from different departments.

• Business site redesigns are top priority, and take less than three months; nonprofit site redesigns often take more than a year.

• Business site redesigns usually start with the director presenting a list of goals and features, and asking the consultants to work from those; nonprofit redesigns began with the consultants being asked to explain what is wrong with the current site.

At this point, anyone who knows about organizational effectiveness should be seeing the red flags.

As a consultant and contractor, the difference that concerns me the most is client satisfaction when the redesign work is complete. The businesses are generally happy with their sites, which have new features that solve the old problems. The nonprofits, however, are often disappointed with their sites, which for some reason still look old-fashioned and still sound stilted and confused.

Seth Godin has some brilliant, and very troubling, observations on the topic of nonprofits today in his post “The problem with non.”

I read his post with great interest because I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something in the nature of nonprofits that leads them to have websites that appear flabby, undistinguished, and ineffective.

Let me be clear: This problem nonprofits have with their websites is not lack of money to spend on website design — although that’s the factor some of them chose to blame. Consider that some of the most attractive and effective websites around are small-business sites that were done for less than three thousand dollars — including full graphic design.

No, what I think hampers nonprofits’ websites is a lack of organizational commitment to communication. Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list. That’s evident when you see that the person assigned to be in charge of the site is likely to be either someone at a level where she has very little organization-wide authority or someone who is so busy doing her “real job” that she has no time to devote to fripperies like managing the site.

Watch how this plays out. (Warning: It’s not pretty.)

Over at the business website, the director of communications or marketing is deluged with requests from all over the company (HR, sales, the board of directors) to put new material up on the website. Often it’s a request to feature something on the front page of the site. The director of communications weighs how much value each item has to the company. Then she firmly tells people whose requests don’t substantively help the company’s bottom line or public image that their stuff isn’t going to make it onto the website. Material that is in the company’s best interests gets written up in the correct style, edited, and posted on the site — but rarely on the carefully designed and carefully maintained front page.

At the nonprofit website, the staff member who “does” the website is also deluged with requests to put material up on the site. But in this case, the individual has no authority to say “no” to anything — a problem when most of the requests are coming from the managers of other departments. And, to be fair to the individual, most nonprofits have no easy way of quantifying the value to the organization of any particular piece of communication or information. After all, the agency isn’t booking appointments, or selling widgets, from the site.

As a result, the nonprofit’s homepage is soon cluttered information that has more meaning to internal stakeholders than to any web visitor. You’ll find a client interview, a new slogan, a video of a United Way commercial, blurry snapshots from the company picnic, and a teeny graphic that no one can tell is the cover of the annual report. And the rest of the site gets cluttered with pages and pages of dry material that quickly go out of date. Once something goes up on the site, it never comes down. Because nobody has any authority — or any time — to remove it.

Is the solution to hire another couple of freelancers to do yet another web redesign? I don’t think so. Read “The problem with non” first.

The morning after Gnomedex

Gnomedex 9 at the Bell Harbor Conference Center was everything it was cracked up to be and well worth the $300 price tag for two days. (Yes, you should register to attend next year.)

Some of the best minds at the intersection of technology and social media were on stage, most of them giving frank, unvarnished presentations. The classroom/style auditorium (free wifi, plenty of outlets, great visibility, not-so-great chairs) was just the right size, and easy to get around in between sessions so you could chat with other participants.

People were friendly; three of the folks I ended up chatting with in the hallways and the dining room turned out to be invited speakers: cyber anthropologist Amber Case, Micah Baldwin (inventor of Twitter’s Follow Friday meme who blogs at, and Mark Horvath, a former media exec and former homeless person who does guerilla public relations at for homeless communities (“some content may be offensive. Our hope is you’ll get mad enough to do something.”).

I also had the opportunity to meet Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute (an expert on open source sensing and nanotechnology who talked about life extension), Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy column at Discover), and Bre Pettis. Bre’s three-dimentional printer, demo-ed onstage an in the lobby, was unquestionably the hit of the convention.

The “un-convention” session on Saturday was an opportunity for me to give a 1-minute presentation on a type of social media data I’ve been exploring.

Speaking at Gnomedex (photo: Alberto Serafin Lopez)
Speaking at Gnomedex (photo: Alberto Serafin Lopez)

I came home with ideas, inspirations, and a stack of business cards from people who said “Let’s talk about this.” One of those cards is from a social media executive I’d love to work with.

But I came home to a sizeable pile of small, low-return projects with firm deadlines that will fill all of my time until I leave town on vacation next week. I’ve made promises to people that those small details will be taken care of. And I keep my promises.

So…which do I do? Pursue the big opportunities, or keep my promises?

The betting is open. I’ll report back at the end of the week.

The three forbidden words of web design

IE6 has long been the bane of the web design community. You design a site and it works in Firefox, it works in Opera — heck, it even works in Safari. But in IE6? Anything can happen, and, usually it does.

Just as superstitious thespians say “the Scottish play” when they mean MacBeth, web designers shudder and talk about “other browsers” when they mean Internet Explorer 6.

IE6 has long been the bane of the web design community. You design a site and it works in Firefox, it works in Opera — heck, it even works in Safari. But in IE6? Anything can happen, and, usually it does.

It takes just a few minutes to download and install Firefox (and it’s free), but most middle-of-the road PC users are still accessing the Internet with exactly what came installed on their PCs: IE6.

As a web content producer, I’m often involved in evaluating a site’s design or redesign for functionality. I test in several browsers, including IE6. But often, if we discover problems, the client doesn’t want to take the extra time or money to make the site anything more than minimally functional in IE6. It’s ugly, but it works, so it’s done.

Jeff Starr, of the excellent design blog Six Revisions, has written a comprehensive article on “taming” IE6, right from the beginning of a web design project. The good news is, it’s possible.

Are you ready for the black swan?

swanflipBryan Alexander, the research director at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, has written a sweeping article on the implications of emerging online and digital technologies. If you’re interested in thinking about how we may be living our lives, online and off, in the next 20 years, this is a great read.

Two more things

A few final words (from me, at least) on Macworld 2009:

I missed Chris Pirillo’s talk on community (ironically, while having a wonderful lunch with a key member of my own community, a person who mentored me at Apple). But I watched the video of Chris’ talk on YouTube, and it was impressive.

“Putting something in front of people and expecting something to happen is asinine,” he warned. “So what is it that makes community happen? It’s all about what happens in your heart.”

This is a must-see for anyone who is attempting to create a community, online or off — or for anyone who works, as I do, with clients who aspire to create communities. Now I’m budgeting so I can attend the next Gnomedex, Chris’ annual tech conference.

Huge accolades go IDG, the company that organizes Macworld. This year’s conference seemed to delight presenters, vendors, and attendees. Everyone was crediting IDG’s vice-president Paul Kent for the success of the event. I am still trying to figure out how this guy orchestrated the conference and managed to play in rock bands at two late-night conference parties during the week!

What’s Twitter, and why I love it

If you work in an environment filled with friendly, fascinating people, where you continually hear about exciting news (local, online, and around the world), and you are encouraged to be witty and playful, then you don’t need Twitter.

If you work in an environment filled with friendly, fascinating people, where you continually hear about exciting news (local, online, and around the world), and you are encouraged to be witty and playful, then you don’t need Twitter.

However, I work in a cubicle in my house (really — I had a surplus Herman Miller cubicle installed here) and the cats have their limitations as colleagues.

Thus, five or six times a day, I Twitter. I take a look at what people are saying, throw in some of my own teasers, check “@” replies, answer publicly posted questions, and look at private “direct mail” I receive. My Twitter breaks correspond to the pattern I followed when I worked in a traditional office: Greet people on arrival, mid-morning coffee break, lunch, mid-afternoon break, and departure in the evening. The one addition is that I’m likely to check Twitter once or twice in the evening — by which time most of us are talking about what we’re cooking for dinner or what activities we’re up to (shopping, yoga, classes, crafts, dealing with the kids, etc.)

Who, you might ask, are these people I’m Twittering with? Well, unlike the real office where you are usually stuck with a few folks you don’t want to deal with, on Twitter you hear only from the people you want to hear from — you select the individuals you follow.

I’ve selected colleagues from my past jobs in tech, clients and colleagues from my current SEO work, leaders in the Seattle social media and blogging field, some belly dance, yoga, and fitness folks, and — here’s the twist — their friends. This “second tier” of Twitter is where it gets really interesting. I see my friends commenting on other people’s remarks, and I get curious about the other people, who often get curious about me, and the next thing I know we’re exchanging tips on everything from cooking to software. Or meeting in Ballard for lunch.

Twitter is also a great way of keeping up on what’s going on with friends from out of town. This way you don’t end up finding out, months after the fact, that they’ve changed jobs, moved, or split up with their significant others. You pick it up on Twitter, and can jump in with an appropriate private direct message.

I most often use Twitter from a web browser, but there are a variety of third party apps that let you read and post Tweets from a smart phone. (This list includes desktop widgets and smart phone apps.) I use PocketTweets but also use Twinkle, an app that lets me see other Twitter/Twinkle users within 1 mile, 2 miles, 5 miles (you get it) from wherever I am. It’s fun during an event (such as Folklife) or when you’re traveling. Or during a snowstorm, when you want to know what’s open in the neighborhood.

Yes, some people do take Twitter a bit too seriously. Some try to game it as a social networking tool, posting a bunch of marketing messages thinly disguised as clever repartee. (It’s like having a colleague at work suddenly launch into an attempt to recruit you into their religion, or sell you Amway products.) Fortunately, Twitter makes it very easy to “unfollow” these folks. And I do. (I’m not selective about who follows me, but Twitter offers a blocking tool for people who are.)

The competitive types get all excited about Twitter Grader, which ranks your influence within the Twitter community. I don’t know what the grading algorithm is, but I suspect it looks primarily at the quality of your followers (how long they’ve been on Twitter, how often they post, and how many followers they have).

There’s a trend towards merging all your online communications into one dashboard, so you’ll see people having their Tweets appear on their blogs, or on Facebook. That’s too large, and too uncontrolled an audience for me. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter, as far as I’m concerned.

Warm wishes for the holidays

The winter holidays are pretty much contiguous this year, which means we can light our menorahs, Christmas trees, and Yule logs all at the same time.

I like it — this feeling of everything all together.

In the 60s people talked about “integration.” In the 80s, it was “celebrating the differences.” Now you hear words like “transparency,” “remix,” and “mashup.” Whether it’s done carefully and intentionally, or it just happens, it’s all about the blurring of what once were differences — differences between our work lives and home lives, our public activities and our private activities, and even elements of our identities, such as race, ethnicity, and age.

Of course there’s are frightening aspects associated with this feeling of everything coming together. People of my generation were educated to think that things were better off clearly defined, categorized, and controlled. This wasn’t the best preparation for a world that now prizes the abilities to perceive connections, to keep moving forward despite ambiguity, and to monitor fast-moving, continuous feedback loops. Problem-solving has become more important than problem-prevention.

Interestingly, the new ways of thinking, and the new technologies inextricably mixed with them, are leading people to revisit older ways of doing things. Many of these old ways pre-date my generation and pertain more to my grandparents’ lives: eating locally grown food, and appreciating the aesthetics of handmade crafts. Many of the younger people I work with in the tech field are enthusiastic gardeners, knitters, cooks, musicians, and do-it-yourselfers.

The more I explore the new, and revisit the old, the more I enjoy myself! I can’t always control the long-term outcomes, but I can, each day, control the steps I take toward my goals. I think often of Steve Jobs’ assertion that “the journey is, and will continue to be, the reward.”

My best wishes to you for a happy and healthy year; one in which the rewards of the journey are many.

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