October 28, 2005

The Dumbest Thing I've Read in Years

I NEVER THOUGHT I'd see the day when Business Week managed to get something right whilst Forbes blew it, but I daresay that day has come. Forbes, you see, has published a particularly stupid article called "Attack of the Blogs!" (registration required) in which the magazines charges that blogs "are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective." And that line's just from the executive summary.

I mean, I don't know about you, but I feel as if I've come a bit late to the party. The last time I checked, the American business world was full of savvy, hardcharging Type-A folks who would sooner eat glass than give in to some whiny Internet curmudgeon. Now, Forbes would have us believe these same people are at the curmudgeons' mercy, and bloggers have amazingly transformed from guys in pajamas to the barbarian horde from the Capital One commercials. Forbes scribe Daniel Lyons writes:

Blogs started a few years ago as a simple way for people to keep online diaries. Suddenly they are the ultimate vehicle for brand-bashing, personal attacks, political extremism and smear campaigns. It's not easy to fight back: Often a bashing victim can't even figure out who his attacker is. No target is too mighty, or too obscure, for this new and virulent strain of oratory. Microsoft has been hammered by bloggers; so have CBS, CNN and ABC News, two research boutiques that criticized IBM's Notes software, the maker of Kryptonite bike locks, a Virginia congressman outed as a homosexual and dozens of other victims--even a right-wing blogger who dared defend a blog-mob scapegoat.

Uh .... Ozzy shouldn't have done this.

I mean, my God -- brand-bashing, personal attacks, political extremism and smear campaigns. It's just like real life! And Heaven forbid people have new ways of expressing their views on something! Why, before BLOGS! came about, most people could only complain to a few people they knew. But now that BLOGS! are here ... well, most people, bloggers included, are still only complaining to the few people they know. If the American business world has become so overbearing, control-freakish and mediocre that it can't fundamentally deal with people expressing their opinions, then I'm going to start learning Chinese.

Of course, the paragraph I cited from Mr Lyons' article is quite telling. It is an incredibly bad work however one looks at it, and it is poorly sourced and poorly written. Mr Lyons was apparently so worked up about blogs that he forgot that "oratory" is spoken, not written. Mr Lyons was also apparently so worked up that he forgot to find a good source for his lead.

It's a long, narrative, four-paragraph lead, and it paints a picture of bloggers damaging a company through all sorts of outlandish conduct. But if one reads Mr Lyons' narrative very carefully, one might be inclined to think that his lead was -- when all was said and done -- nothing more than a case of "buy on rumor, sell on news." I've put what I considered the key points in bold below:

Here's the opener:

Gregory Halpern knows how to hype. Shares of his publicly held company, Circle Group Holdings, quadrupled in price early last year amid reports that its new fat substitute, Z-Trim, was being tested by Nestlé. As the stock spurted from $2 to $8.50 ...

Soon after this, Forbes charges, the Creatures from the Blog! attacked, and there was much name-calling and complaint-filing and letter-writing and posting anonymous and disparaging remarks on newsgroups. The magazine charges a former stockbroker was behind it all, but by the time action was taken, the damage was reportedly done.

... No matter: Circle Group stock fell below a dollar in a year of combat with Miles and the anonymous bashers on Yahoo (and after Nestlé dropped Z-Trim)

The bold points are but two sentences in Mr Lyons' narrative. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the circumstances behind them.

Addendum: Sidebar on "Fighting Back" Pathetic, Perilous

The Blogs! article, if presented on its own, would be nothing but embarrassing for Forbes. However, it also has the potential to actually cause trouble for business owners who aren't yet "with it" when it comes to blogging, due to a sidebar called "Fighting Back."

Remember that scene from "Annie Hall" when Alvy is out in Wisconsin visiting Annie's family and her brother Duane approaches Alvy with his weird and horrific thoughts about crashing his car into oncoming traffic? And Alvy says something to the effect of, "I've got to go now, I'm due back on planet Earth." Well, Duane wrote the goddamn sidebar, OK? It's that out there.

I mean, the first few tips aren't that bad. But as the list goes on, though, the writer seems to forget that most of Forbes' corporate readers are in the United States of America, and as such must deal with the American legal system. Here are a few of the real doozies from the article, in bold and italics:

BASH BACK. If you get attacked, dig up dirt on your assailant and feed it to sympathetic bloggers. Discredit him.
I can see it now: "John Smith might not like the design of our new gadget, but can you really trust someone WHO DOESN'T RECYCLE and who was A DAY LATE with a credit card payment back in 1996?" That said, if you're really going to be so stupid as to personally attack a critic like that, make sure you're right and/or not violating any laws. Because if you're not right and/or you are violating the law, you're going to be in trouble.

ATTACK THE HOST. Find some copyrighted text that a blogger has lifted from your Web site and threaten to sue his Internet service provider under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That may prompt the ISP to shut him down. Or threaten to drag the host into a defamation suit against the blogger. The host isn't liable but may skip the hassle and cut off the blogger's access anyway. Also:Subpoena the host company, demanding the blogger's name or Internet address.
Problem: some hosts will openly laugh at this tactic, because they realize it's full of crap. Second problem: it's also not done in a vacuum either: the blogger will find out about it, and shish-kabob what's left of your company's reputation all over the Internet. Third problem: you'll generally look like a schmuck.

SUE THE BLOGGER. If all else fails, you can sue your attacker for defamation, at the risk of getting mocked. You will have to chase him for years to collect damages. Settle for a court order forcing him to take down his material.
It is not a risk you will be mocked for suing a blogger; it is a certainty. As for damages, that assumes you'll actually win the case, a doubtful proposition. Also, bloggers don't have the same approach to risk that a company does. To a company, settling for a court order makes perfect sense. A typical blogger would rather rob his own grandmother's grave. Furthermore, the blogger may just turn around and file suit against you for suing him in the first place, and then you'll really be in trouble.

My suggestion? Take a deep breath. Then have someone write the blogger a nice, thoughtful e-mail responding to their concerns. That will usually do the job.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at October 28, 2005 10:41 AM | TrackBack

Well big busines is like big media, they love to control things based on their size and clout and can't handle criticism. Thank goodness for the bloggers and the diversity of thought and information they bring to light.

Posted by: Swammi in Solon at October 29, 2005 09:13 AM