One small New Year’s Resolution (thanks, Dorothea)

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions. But sometimes an exception makes sense.

This is one such time.

Dorothea Salo at CavLec posted about an odd but growing phenomenon: Pseudo-personal email to bloggers touting specific items or studies with the suggestion that, you know, the blogger might want to write about it.

Quoting a bit of her post about the email she got:

It addressed me specifically. It indicated more or less how my name came up and why I was chosen. No quid pro quo, not even wink-wink-nudge-nudge style. No arrogance. Really nicely done.

And it still bugs the crap out of me. I’m sorry, it just does.

One of the nice things about using blogs as a professional filter is the confidence I had that I was following people’s genuine interests, influenced by no more than their own curiosity and intelligence and the environment they exist in and interact with. These weren’t, in a word, people who were being told what to think, much less paid to think it. They weren’t being filtered, in turn, by any particular establishment, no matter how well-meaning, much less a vendor or other organization with enough dogs in the hunt to create actual bias. That’s useful, that is.

And now I don’t know how far I can trust the filter any more, and that’s a loss to me.

I wasn’t a recipient of email in the instance Salo discusses. (I dunno. Maybe I’m too small a fry. Maybe I’m not known to be sufficiently adulatory or uncritical about the work of a particular group. Us lackluster veterans can be that way.) As it happens, the item being discussed is one that I’ve printed out (yes, the full study, not the press release) and may discuss later here or in Cites & Insights at some point. If I do discuss it, that will be on its own merits, not because someone I don’t know sent me email suggesting I blog about it.

First reaction:

I think her solution makes a certain amount of sense: “Here’s the deal. I value my bloggy independence, as I have from the very beginnings of CavLec, and I’m ornery as a kicked mule. If you push me to read and talk about something you have a direct interest in, not because you think it’s useful to me, and not because you intend to put my input to some sort of practical use (as with, say, a standards draft), but because you want to create buzz? To hell with you. I won’t just not read or review it, I’ll be more than a little tempted to call you out in public.”

But it’s not my problem–I’m not high enough profile to get that kind of email.

Second reaction, just a little bit later:

Whoops. I just got email (from some entirely different source, but also from someone who seemed to be addressing me personally, who I didn’t know) praising what I do (it wasn’t clear whether it was this blog or C&I) and suggesting that I really should investigate and write about this library-oriented thing they were involved with. Since it was totally outside the areas I cover (and in an area where I’m at a loss), I wrote a gentle reply saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

So, yes, it is my problem–and now that I think about it, that’s not the first time this has happened.

And then, on my morning blogscan (I thought about watching the Rose Parade and decided…nah), I got Salo’s followup post, beginning:

So, not a day after I ask the hypesters to leave my damn blogosphere the hell alone, I get another tout email. Do you morons not read? (Yes, okay, that one answers itself.)

Here’s my new policy. I’m publishing any of those I get. Sans links. With names. Call it my little gesture toward turning over the rock and watching the little grubs squirm.

You know what? I think it’s a reasonable policy. And I resolve to emulate it when I think I’m being hyped: You get identified, but what you’re touting gets soundly ignored.

Doesn’t happen to me very often (that I’m aware of). Press releases are impersonal–also usually a waste of time, but impersonal; those I just delete. Contacts from PR agents (“we can set up an interview”) are mostly related to the print column(s) I write (yes, I’m back in ONLINE this year, so it’s plural); they fall under a different set of guidelines (and are almost always wastes of the agent’s time).

But email directed to me personally, from someone I’ve never met and don’t know professionally, touting something as blogworthy…well, if it feels like hype, then selective exposure makes sense.

As with Dorothea Salo, I trust bloggers–at least some bloggers–as filters of sorts. Hype email reduces that trust. Not a good thing.


Oh, as for Cites & Insights, where the January issue for a new year did not emerge (gasp) during the previous December? Later today…or at least that’s 99% certain.

Update, January 8, 2008: Jenny Levine makes some excellent points in the comments (which see). It’s possible–not certain, but possible–that Dorothea Salo’s view of what constitutes “hype email” differs from mine. And I don’t anticipate doing loads of posts “outing” people for sending me email suggesting that I look into something. (Well, it would certainly improve my posting frequency, but…)

So here’s what I’m really trying to say–and this applies to me, not to Salo or anyone else:

  • Want to send me PR information labeled as such? Fine. Do be aware that I’m not much for doing insider interviews (especially for my “disContent” column, where being an outsider is what it’s all about). If you’re generally far outside my range of interests, I’ll let you know; otherwise, I’ll either delete the PR or pay attention to it.
  • You’re an actual, honest-to-Gaia, friend or acquaintance and have a head’s-up for me that you’re pretty sure is something I’d like to know about? Great. If I remember, I might even mention you if/when I write about it.
  • You’re not an acquaintance or friend, but you want me to view your “tip” as one coming to me personally, rather than as regular PR? Then, well, there’s a chance that I’ll be sufficiently offended to “out” you.

Or not. For some reason I hear the refrain “life is too short” more and more in the back of my head these days, even though I hope to have another three good decades…

8 Responses to “One small New Year’s Resolution (thanks, Dorothea)”

  1. John Dupuis Says:

    I just got one myself the other day. It was about “The Top 80 Charities for Open Source and Open Access Advocates” and I think it’s being emailed quite widely to library & science blogs. I’m always torn by these semi-spam things. They’re obviously meant to drive traffic to the site but at the same time they can be somewhat interesting or useful. The same with the stuff at OEDB or that Jimmy Atkinson is always emailing around.

  2. walt Says:

    Jimmy Atkinson? Top 80 Open-Source charities? I knew I was out of some loops, but it’s worse than I thought… (or better, maybe).

  3. Peter Murray Says:

    I, too, got the “The Top 80 Charities for Open Source and Open Access Advocates” message, and it comes from the same person Dorothea identifies in her outing. I get lots of junk, and at times it is hard to tell whether they are sending it to me because of my professional position or because I write a blog. (The message in question here did say, however, “just in case you think your readers would find it interesting.”)

    Personally, I send such messages to what I think is a worse fate — I put them in my ‘spam’ folder, which is automatically picked up by a server-side SpamAssassin process that submits the message ‘fingerprints’ to the Razor database and the Distributed Checksum Clearinghouse. That way they will hopefully be stopped for other users as well as serving as a form of punishment for their unsolicited messages.

  4. Dorothea Salo Says:

    It occurs to me, Walt, that you may not have gotten the Pew solicit because you HAVE blogged about them. A quick Ask.com on CavLec demonstrates that I haven’t. If they’re trying to broaden their base, I’m a better target than you are.

  5. Jenny Levine Says:

    When you do this long enough, you get this kind of stuff all the time, so maybe you’re getting to the point where you’ve done this long enough. This happens in pretty much every format (not just blogs), and it’s certainly nothing new.

    I guess I’m more shocked that you’ve been a print columnist for so long and apparently never had anyone say to you or send you a “hey, check this out – you might want to write about it” solicitation. Congratulations on flying under the radar and avoiding those, because they’re just as annoying.

    Speaking from personal experience, this goes on in the real world *all* the time, and if you plan to keep blogging and start calling these folks out (people who are usually just trying to get some publicity for their work), you will spend all of your time writing about them instead of what you want to write about. If you don’t like it, just delete it.

    Rather than focusing on the negative and “shaming” these folks, why not do something more constructive like adding guidelines to your site so that others know you’re not blogging about items from “hype emails.” Do something more than just saying, “Me, too,” and create a badge for bibliobloggers that says something like “Don’t blog the hype.”

    Personally, I don’t mind when someone gives me a heads up on something. I use my superspecial librarian powers to evaluate it, rather than blindly discounting it because I don’t know the person, and then I decide for myself whether I want to blog about it or not. If it’s not relevant to my blog or I know I won’t have time to look at it right now, I just delete it. I have the power, not them.

  6. walt Says:

    Jenny,

    I think there are two different situations here.

    One is the normal press release/proposed press contact. Yes, I’ve gotten those (still do), quite a few of them over the years. They’re clearly identified as press contacts and suggestions for contacts. I either follow them up, ignore them, or in some cases let the person know that I’m an unlikely prospect. I have no problem with such contacts; they’re a good thing. (There are also suggestions from people who clearly read my stuff; no problem there either.)

    The other–and this is what I thought Dorothea was referring to–is the “Hey, buddy, you should be writing about this” email: The email that purports to be (but isn’t) based on personal knowledge of your stuff or personal acquaintance. It’s the “personal” part that’s irritating and, I think, deserves calling out.

    Now, if I’m reading Dorothea Salo’s post wrong (and I could be: it’s been an odd and stressful week), then I’m responding to a different situation. I expect to continue to get press contacts and suggestions that are identifiable as such–they’re not friends or acquaintances and don’t pass themselves off as such. No problem. No threat of embarrassment. I write for three continuing publications (not including this blog) and now help guide and prepare copy for an international library resource; I should and do expect such contacts.

    What I dislike–and it hasn’t happened often–is the pseudopersonal contact. (Real personal contacts: Always fine. We may not always agree on things, but if you sent me a note suggesting something you think I’d want to know about/look at, I’d regard that as wholly legitimate.)

    So here’s the guideline: If you’re trying to pitch something to me and you don’t really know me, don’t pretend you do. It will lower the chances of my paying attention–you’re setting up a barrier by trying to make it personal–and if I think it’s egregious it could result in a post.

    Or not. Fact is, life is too short, by and large.

    Still, you know, roughly half of the spamments that Spam Karma 2 traps each day are of the “I really love your blog” or “I didn’t understand portions of [inserted post title here] but…” or “Thanks for the expert advice on [inserted post title here}…” — all phony personal responses. I think I’m trying to apply a natural-intelligence version of Spam Karma’s filtering, but for my email contacts. Life is also too short to waste time on pseudocontacts.

    As for badges: I don’t do those, any more than I sign up for or support a Blogger’s Code of Conduct. I’m just not interested in telling other people how they should run their blogs.

  7. Jenny Levine Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Walt – that helps. I still think the prudent thing to do in these cases is to simply ask the person not to contact you anymore, rather than publicly calling them out. Then if they don’t respect your known wishes, they’re fair game.

    But for all we know, the person sending the message was handed a list and a template and told to hit send as part of his job, so maybe it’s the parent organization you should expose, and not the person.

  8. walt Says:

    Jenny, You may be right; I’m not sure.


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