PayPerPost and the Race to the Bottom

It’s a basic law of human nature: if you set up a system with boundaries, someone will explore the edge of them. I had never heard of PayPerPost until they sponsored the (sadly missed by me) ConvergeSouth. From what I understand of the joint, they provide an opportunity for bloggers to find subjects about which they can blog to receive money for just having written. Given that situation, it is inevitable that someone would explore the degenerate case of that system, which is someone making blog posts that consist of saying “PayPerPost paid me to blog about Y” in exactly as many words as the minimum length post they will pay for.

The basic assumption of such a system seems to be that the person taking the money is of good will and will make a reasonable post but if there is nothing in the contract that specifies that, how do guarantee that? Seems like this sort of thing is in fact what PayPerPost creates, a race to the bottom for how little effort you can put in to take the money. It’s only sensible economics when you are getting paid a fixed amount for a task to find the most efficient way to pull the “pay me” lever.

Note that the exact opposite of this situation is Pete Prodoehl’s PayMeToBlog experiment, where you are hiring the services of a known entity to do a similar thing. In this case, you only have one person and you can check their previous efforts to gauge how reasonable a job you think they will do. PayPerPost is asking you to trust an anonymous group of people whose incentive structure is to give you the lowest value possible. I’d be surprised if there is long-term prospects there, but I’m an optimist and I love to be wrong about such things.

Later: I wrote the above before I knew that this subject was such a tempest in a chamber pot. I was talking only about the specfic scumbaggy case above, but Doc Searls hates this idea in any form. I don’t know that I agree with his take or that of Jason Calcanis. I’m closer to where Dan Gillmor came down. Really, how is taking PayPerPost money any different from doing something like the Darren Rowse approach of blogging a subject specifically because it will generate good Adsense revenue? How is this different from Hugh MacLeod shilling for nice suits and wine? Why is one more cynical than the other?

Is it that an A-lister cashing for a lot of money is fine, while a Z-lister cashing in for nickels and dimes is no good? How about an A-lister selling a network of revenue producing blogs to AOL? I don’t see how you can see these as that different. How is it reasonable for Jason Calcanis to be on the high horse on this subject? I think a lot of people could claim that he polluted the blogosphere a long time ago with profit motive driven blogs staffed by paid bloggers rather than those writing purely out of their passions. Now that he’s cashed the check, he wants to keep the blogosphere pure. Where was he with that argument before he (literally) sold out? Why is one form of pandering horrible and another perfectly acceptable? It seems hypocritical to me.

All of these cases are making money by choosing specifically marketable subject matter to blog about. Perhaps the problem is that the PayPerBloggers are violating my own slogan – “there is no such thing as selling out, just selling too cheap.” Michael Arrington writing about The New Bubble or Boing Boing blogging about Disney and giant robots over and over are now making them a lot of money. Now that the cash machine has begun rolling can you see either switching to different subjects that will cut their traffic radically and cost them a lot of bank? How is that different?

Lest I be misunderstood, in summation I think PayPerPost is a cynical and sleazy affair, but I don’t see anyone I cited in here as being above reproach. I think you could indeed take PPP money and do it ethically, and like the place this post started — you can do it and be a complete weasel about it. This is all a very long way of saying that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of Doc.

PS – I ran across this great site the other day called AmigoFish. I think it is really neat, and you should check it out. It is peachy keen, kids.

Update: Further stuff – Mike Dunn responds to this post and Eric Rice muses that the blogosphere is being played by all this. I actually had a thought occur to me and considered making another post about the socioeconomics of this, but I’ll just append that little bit here. As I look at everyone in the debate, they range from upper middle class to millionaires like Calcanis. No one (myself included) would even notice being up or down $50 any given month. However, a lot of Americans would. Where do people at the top of Mazlow’s hierarchy of need get off telling people at the bottom that they shouldn’t try to move up? If I didn’t have enough spare at the end of the month to buy my kids new shoes but by writing a blog post on a specific topic I could – hell yeah, daddyo. “Purity of the blogosphere” is the concern of someone who has made ends meet. For the person deciding whether to take a second job out of the house or write a few (cynical, yes, whorelike, given) blog posts at home after the kids have gone to bed, it’s a no brainer.

I believe that’s my (unpaid) last word on this subject unless something arises that is more interesting than what’s on the table now.

14 Replies to “PayPerPost and the Race to the Bottom”

  1. Nice, balanced post Dave. The missing piece in your “race to the bottom” assumption is that at least two others forces are in play to keep abusers in check: 1) audience and 2) PPP’s rating system.

    Assuming the PPP platform evolves over time to reward high-audience blogs more than low-audience blogs, writing crummy blogs goes against that incentive system.

    As for PPP’s rating system, we’ve already seen a similar system work in a tangible property marketplace: eBay’s buyer/seller feedback. If implemented correctly the system will reward quality and discourage abuse of this intangible property marketplace.

    There will always be outliers in any population, but PPP is building a platform to deliver win-win-win for mainstream bloggers, advertisers, and audiences. It remains to be seen whether PPP will achieve that goal, but they are the undisputed market leader and early data looks promising (e.g. audiences for PPP members have grown since joining).

    Again, great balance.

  2. The good thing about PPP sponsorship of CS was…. they didn’t require anything of us. They just gave us some cards to put in the lunchboxes. And bought the lunches. Hey… who are we to complain.

  3. Ben, I’ve got no problems with the sponsorship. It seems reasonable to me to pay the people. I took Backbeat Media’s defacto sponsorship to feed people at Portable Media Expo, and in exchange I shouted thanks to a crowd once. That seemed a quite minor tradeoff for the value received, as does the lunch at CS.

    Dan, I guess by balance you mean that while PPP makes me itchy, so do most of the most vocal critics of it. I left out one other thing in my post, the Dvorak types who controversy farm by cynically posting things they know will stir shit up, solely to drive traffic through their. Again, how is that different? If you don’t come down on every one of these things equally, I don’t see how you can come down on any of them.

    I have Adsense on this blog. If my participation in this discussion sparks a shitstorm and tons of people come here to tell me I’m dead wrong, I’ll probably make more money off of that. How would I be different in that case than if I took the same amount from PPP to post on this subject and wrote the same post?

    So, I’m not really on your side per se, but I think it’s all or nothing on the integrity question and I don’t think any of your critics are taking it far enough if they want to be defenders of purity.

  4. I think there are A LOT of people wanting to know about the marketing potetential of blogs, ergo there will always be people trying to push its boundaries, for good or ill.

  5. Hugh, true enough. I should note that the above post sounds a little down on you, but I was just trying to say that I don’t see what you are doing as radically different than PPP. It’s all just people trying to keep the rent paid.

    I have taken the money of a number of firms to sponsor my podcast, and I’ll take more gladly when I can get it. It just is unseemly to have someone (Calcanis) who has cashed out big calling for a purity from everyone else that would have prevented his own payday if he actually lived by that ideal.

  6. First, when we paid folks to blog at Weblogs, Inc. we NEVER told them what to blog. They blogged just like they did when they were on their own… I’m an old-school media guy and I’m big on the church and state thing as you know. The bloggers found out about the advertisers when the readers did–that was the rule!

    PayPerPost allows for covert marketing, and that is the problem. If you blog about wine as a wine maker everyone knows what they are getting and can make a decision on it. The issue here is that someone might blog about how much they love a wine and not tell you they are getting paid–that’s wrong. No one likes to be covertly marketed to-do you?

    Second, the concept of an A-list in blogging is really silly frankly.

    There isn’t an A-list, everyone is on a level playing field and you rise and fall with your posts. If you want to become what some folks consider an A-list blogger you can do it in 30-60 days if you:

    a) go to TechMeme and write an intelligent post about the top story of the day every day.

    b) go to 2-3 blogger events and introduce yourself to folks

    c) write an intelligent comment on 5-10 blogs a day.

    That’s it… now you’re “A-list”… it means nothing. Stop blogging for 30 days and you don’t exist any more–more proof that there is no A-list.

    You own your posts and that’s it…

    Compare that to MSM where you might wait in line 5-20 years to get a gig at the NYT, WSJ, etc… and even when you do you still have to answer to all kinds of people.

    The blogosphere is the most level playing field in the history of media. To say that the PayPerPost issue is about A-list vs. “nobodies” is a joke. Everyone is someone in the blogosphere… everyone get a voice. It’s up to you how you use that voice: for covert marketing or for authentic discourse.

    I’m fighting against covert marketing. No one likes to deceived–do you?

  7. Also, the argument that there are people doing covert stuff in other places doesn’t mean that what PayPerPost is doing is right.

    That’s like saying people are stealing apples right now, so I should be able to.

    This whole debate is not about:

    a) A-listers vs. Z-listers.
    or
    b) “other folks are corrupt… so why is this a problem”

    Those are really stupid arguments frankly.

    The issue here is COVERT MARKETING.

    No one likes to be covertly marketed too–PERIOD. we should fight it.

  8. I’m a “nobody” podcaaster—I don’t do it for money, and at the end of the day my bills are by my “day job”. Hell, I couldn’t get arrested in this universe.

    It seems that, two years into this new media, the deck is already stacked: $25 million in capitalization for PodShow pretty much assures they can buy the space and shuffle the deck of podcasters like 45s in a Wurlitzer.

    Behind Adam Curry’s “make advertising better” shuck, lies the heart of Clear Channel—homogenization—and killing the creative spirit.

    I have listened to Gillmor Gang for a year and half, and on a good day there is not a better show forpeople in the tech industry. The sad thing is hearing Steve mumble his way through the obligatory Earth Link ad—the three they selected—while Jason Calacanis and Hugh shred the whole ethic with their mocking promotion in the show.

    Two years from now either the revolt of the ‘casters will be fully realized, or RSS will become just like FM radio: “no static at all”—and no soul!

  9. Randy, I stopped listening to Steve a while back because he frustrates me so much. I love the guy, but he drives me too crazy on a daily basis to listen to him. I’m not sure what you mean by Podshow “buying the space” and killing the creative spirit. What can they do to make you stop? Nothing. Do your thing, baby and let it fly. No one can stop you.

    Jason, You are mistakenly or deliberately misreading my arguments. I’m saying that when you pay people and tell them what to post, its all of a piece. That you paid people and tell them to blog about the subject or that PPP is telling them to blog a specific thing is just a matter of detail and degree. It’s all shilling, just in your case the shilling is for the media empire.

    I do agree with you about the disclosure. I’ll go so far as to say that if PPP made mandatory disclosure part of getting paid by them, all issues flake away and become moot.

    So, Mr. Calcanis, while you are on the high horse about covert marketing, is that universal? Before game 2 of the World Series John Cougar came out and did his “new single” which oddly enough is the same song in the Chevy commercial they play 20 times per game. Are you equally down on that? How about the fact that they keep having these boners from American Idol singing in the 7th inning, covertly marketing another Fox property? This is how the world works. It’s cynical, and who the hell doesn’t notice it.

    There are three ways a PPP blog shilling whatever stupid shit they have can go:

    1) they are shilling and you can’t tell that. In that case, they earned the money and deserved it.

    2) They are shilling and you don’t care because you are entertained and/or enlightened despite it. Again, they earned it fair and square.

    3) They are shilling and you are sick of it, so you stop reading. Self-correcting mechanisms at their finest.

    Your advice about writing 5-10 comments per day on other blogs is also about covert shilling, but in this case one’s own blog. It’s all of a piece, which is why I think your line drawing is absurd.

  10. Oh, and I forgot: I withdraw the A-list/Z-list dichotomy and switch it for people with enough money to not care about an extra $100/month vs those for whom that money makes a difference in their lives. You’ve got a shitload more money than me, but PPP can’t buy me at their current rates. If they go a lot higher into the range that makes a difference in my life, then we’ll talk.

    Some sell out for $25/post, some for more, some for $20-35M for all the posts. It’s all just hustling for rent money in one way or another. It’s hypocrisy to hustle your way and then tell everyone else they can’t hustle because the integrity of the blogosphere is too important. You don’t get to both say that and cash the check.

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