Is Blogging for Profit Destroying the Medium?

4 years ago

There is a small contingent of people who think that all blogs are narcissists. Or maybe that's what everyone thinks? Do you have to be slightly narcissistic to write about your life in such detail for the whole world? I guess that's what I used to think. The first time I heard about "blogging," I was in college. My friend Ian was talking about how his friend had written a post on her blog about some stupid thing she'd done, and her parents had found it.

I asked what a blog was.

He explained very flippantly that it was a diary you write, but anyone can read it. It's an invitation to anyone and everyone to your inner thoughts and monologues. I'll admit, the idea both thrilled and terrified me. Who on EARTH would want to post all of their private thoughts online? And why would anyone ever want to read them? Unless you know the person in question, it seemed silly to think that someone could be interested in what you had for breakfast. But something about the idea took root somewhere way down in my psyche.

Two years later, I was working as a Flight Attendant out of Charlotte, NC. I had a Compaq laptop that I carried with me to play games on, and I had no cell phone or any means to keep in touch with anyone I cared about other than occasional emails.

By that time, "blog" was a slightly more mainstream word. I had heard of sites like Livejournal and Blogspot, and the idea began to appeal to me to chronicle my life as a Trolley Dolly. My dad happened to call me right when I was deciding on a name, and he thought the idea sounded fun. He suggested I call it "Cloud Hopper." It sounded good to me, so I set up a blogger account and went to town. I updated two or three times before I kind of gave up. There was no interaction, and I didn't really see any benefit to the endeavor.

A few months later, I was in the UK, having left my job with the airline. I decided to try again, creating an account on Livejournal. This time, it took off. I met so many different people there, each of them with their own story - their own opinions. When I updated about my life, I had 15 - 20 comments from different folks who asked questions, commiserated, and conversed with me. I had hundreds of other bloggers in my friends feed, and I knew the ins and outs of each of their lives. I knew Dennis, who lived in Texas and longed for love, even though he was sarcastic and sometimes downright nasty. I knew Mary from Indiana who loved nature and saw the beauty in everything. I knew Jen who was a "furry" and believed wholeheartedly in magic. Erin was a writer who shared beautiful stories and photographs. Gary was a reality TV junkie who made it interesting for me to hear about Survivor.

The crazy part is, I had a relationship with each one of them. Some of them knew each other, but most of them didn't. It didn't stop them from interacting on my comment page.

Over the years, I changed my user name a few times, and eventually I spent $100 to buy a permanent account because I was so convinced I would be there forever. But times change, and technology progresses, and soon enough I wanted to "go solo." I didn't want to be one voice in a community. I wanted to start my OWN community.

I bought a domain and began writing on my own. I wanted a place to showcase my paintings, as well as write about whatever I wanted. I thought it would be easy. That the people who had so simply found me once would find me again. That the world was just waiting to discover me.  Yes, I can definitely see the narcissism. But blogging had taught me that people were interested.

As I struggled to find myself in life, I changed domains again and again, searching for my voice and trying to define myself by the name that I chose. It was a neverending struggle.

I never thought back then about SEO or ads or sponsorships. I never heard of blogging conferences or workshops. I never thought that blogging would be anything but  a fun hobby and a way of meeting people.

But again, time and technology changed things. Suddenly blogging was an important part of a media strategy. Companies started their own blogs and twitters and facebooks. PR people reached out to us and offered us cash to write about a product or service. Money, travel, free products and fine dining were ours, and we had to do very little. Sometimes they would even provide the text - all we had to do was cut and paste. What they wanted was the backlink. What they wanted was our credibility.

Two years ago, new blogs were popping up all over the place with the expectation that they would be given shiny new pretties. And the sad thing is that they were! A brand new blog with only a few posts could still be offered cash for a backlink. Because that's all they were good for then. They didn't know enough about no-follow rules or disclosure policies. They were only too happy to sign their blogs away for the money.  Google began punishing people for their carelessness. Page Rank was taken away, and their blog no longer counted for anything. But since they were only in it for the money, they just started new ones.

More established bloggers were told that they had to maintain page rank. They needed to look at their stats every single day. Unique visitors, page views, social media followers - if you want to make REAL money from your blog, then these numbers need to be UP UP UP.

SEO is the most important thing. Your key words need to appear in the title, in the first paragraph and in your meta description. Categories and Tags are important. Photos have to have alt tags.... The rules are endless.

And because we are all used to the money and the free products, we work like dogs to keep ourselves relevant. We are afraid to just WRITE. We are afraid to be creative. Because God forbid I don't make $50 by placing this link with this particular anchor text. God forbid I miss out on the $100 by not posting six times on Twitter with these three hashtags.

It's a wonder we have any readers at all, really. Because what is interesting about reading what someone has to say about dish soap when you see the disclosure that assures you that even though they have received monetary compensation and a free review product, of course all opinions are truthful. Of course...

Why do people read blogs? It used to be because it was a never-ending novel; Your favorite character always facing new challenges. Every time you finish the book, it magically rewrites itself into a new direction, and you never have to put it down. And even better - this book lets you read only what you're interested in. Say you love reading about days out in the country, but you don't want to wade through all the stuff about what was had for breakfast. Well that's easy enough - just choose the right category. Today you are in the mood to read about religion - well get on up and click on that tag in the sidebar.

Whether a blogger is an amazing humanitarian or a trainwreck waiting to happen, a prolific author of bestselling novels or a musician who vents their frustration with the industry, a cancer kid who just wants to reach out for comfort or a businessman who thinks you NEED to know his secrets to success - there's something for everyone to read. It's all out there.

And when you can relate to a person through the things that they choose to share with you, you begin to develop trust. You will read that post about Corn Flakes ($50 in the pocket from Kelloggs, of course!) and even comment about how awesome it is. Because we are all friends, and we just want some human interaction... even if it's all virtual.

Blogging is not what it used to be. It's not what I want it to be. It is a never-ending shill where we are each tethered to our computers, watching our numbers go up and down and wishing we could have a do-over.

This is not to say that I think paid reviews or sponsorships are wrong. I do them, and I welcome any brand that wants to work with me. What I hate is that bloggers accept posts from brands that have nothing to do with their life. I've seen moms of teenagers doing reviews of strollers that they have no need to use. I've seen vegan bloggers reviewing bargain basement cakes and cookies. I've seen menopausal bloggers waxing lyrical about tampons. In a closed facebook group, I even saw a woman venting her disgust with a particular brand, citing bad customer service, terrible craftsmanship and the item breaking in the first day. But a week later, she had a glowing review on her blog.

The problem is that in order to entice brands to work with us, we often have to already have worked with a brand. So we accept anything at the start. We will review cat food when we have no pets. We'll force our husbands to model underwear because a fashion PR has sent us a pair. We will feed our kids sugary snacks that we would never buy for ourselves so we can snap a photo of them happily indulging.

Are we so narcissistic as to believe that the only way we can feel valid as bloggers is if we are getting paid to do it? Do we measure the worth of our words by how much someone is willing to pay us? And are we confident enough in ourselves to tell the truth in every situation, even if it means losing sponsorship?

I don't have the answers to these questions. Certainly I have had occasions where I've held back writing a post for fear of alienating a potential new sponsor. Is it more important to write from the heart - always - than to generalize every experience so that we appeal to a larger demographic? 

I have to remind myself that people read my blog for a reason. They relate to ME. Not to the brands I promote or to the causes I support. They want to know what I think, how I feel, what I'm going through.

That is the point of a blog. 

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