Zoning friendship for commerce

The Consumerist has a link to this site, PayPerPost, which hopes to match companies with bloggers willing to shill for them for cash — without anyone else needing to knowing about this arrangement, of course. (Media columnist Jon Fine wrote about this site in the July 10 BusinessWeek too.) God bless the Internet. How else would the people with no integrity be able to find each other? “You’ve been writing about Web sites, products, services and companies you love for years and you have yet to benefit from all the sales and traffic you have helped generate. That’s about to change.” Hell, why should professional editors at lifestyle magazines hoard all the benefits of belching out disguised advertorial copy? Everyone should be able to dirty their hands in the corporate slush pile. Perhaps people will be able to leverage their MySpace friend lists into earning better rates for doing a little word-of-mouth for whatever product needs pimping. “Hey friendz, just want 2 let u know this Raid roach spray is 2 die 4!!!!” According to the site advertisers should take advantage of money-hungry bloggers “to create buzz, build traffic, gain link backs for search engine ranking, syndicate content and much more.” The image of bloggers on the site is worth a click-through — a bunch of attractive young people hanging out, with a line pointing to one girl that reads “She wants to make money.” (It’s a glamorous life, blogging.) She’s looking into the camera with an expression that seems to say, “Duh, can’t you see I’ve got these chumps right where you want them?”

Maybe the new generation of young self-exploiters really does think of friends as nothing more than a marketable commodity, a deliverable demographic, but the whole premise behind this scheme seems off. I think most people don’t want to turn their friends into bargaining chips. It’s not as though people are out there writing screeds about their favorite TV shows or laundry detergents on spec, waiting for Madison Avenue to discover them and start paying them for their efforts. Promoting something one sincerely enjoys can feel like a gift one’s giving to whoever will listen. You do it because having people finding out about something that’s good is its own reward; you can believe (perhaps erroneously, but still sincerely) that you are making the world a better place by letting them know which stain removers have really worked for you. If there is any calculation about it, it’s that the advice is a kind of currency exchanged in building up friendships, in building up trust. Introduce a cash incentive, and you invalidate this other currency. After all, the only reason what you might say about consumer goods would mean anything to anyone is that they know you are not getting paid to say it; and if people find out you’re taking money to offer advice, they won’t take that advice as sign of your good intentions and friendship (no matter how much you really mean it) but as an indication that you are eager to exploit your connections and that you have little use for people otherwise. It would be like selling a friend’s contact information to direct marketers and timeshare brokers.

To say something because we actually feel it is becoming harder, ever more rare and valuable as ads infiltrate more and more of the available public space. People, I think, cherish the oppotunity to have non-commercial exchanges more and more as ads become more and more invasive. In a consumer society some of this conversation will be about shopping, and products, but that doesn’t mean we want to commercialize it. This lack of sincere discourse in society makes our earnest exposition of our preferences even more sacrosanct, even on blogs, which are ostensibly public domain but in most cases are a way of making a social group tangible, of carving out a space for a friend group to exist. Who would want to sully that space, make it just another place for sale, like the side of a bus shelter or a diner place mat? Because friendships are occurring in the seemingly manageable and controllable and numerically measurable space of Internet, companies are tempted to commercialize the entire process, make friendship a brandable product. This scheme is a small part of that larger cultural effort to let no refuge from the rationale of entrepreneurship and mutual exploitation for profit stand. The message: Why have friends if they don’t help you earn anything? Have friends through whatever Internet-driven system you want to name and get paid for being friendly! The point is that you are always ever out for yourself, even in friendship, and this is how it should be — it’s what provides “happiness” and “freedom.” This is what happens when unfettered individuality as a moral value is turned into an advertiser’s hook.