Book blogging ethics

What follows is a modified version of a talk that I gave as part as one of the speakers for the Book Blogging Ethics panel of the 2nd Filipino ReaderCon, which was held last 18 August 2012 at the Filipinas Heritage Library. My fellow speakers were Kai Agito and Blooey Singson, and the facilitator was Tarie Sabido. My sincere thanks go to Honey de Peralta and her team, especially Chris Mariano, upon whose suggestion I was invited to be on the panel.

Good morning to everyone. I should probably begin with a small disclaimer: as much as I love books, and as much as I enjoy blogging, I am, unlike my fellow panelists, not exactly a book blogger. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to contribute something of value for the purpose of our discussion today.

Because the idea of ethics, which is to say notions of right and wrong conduct, really only makes sense within a given social context, I believe that it is important for us to begin by trying to understand what we might call the Philippine virtual ecosystem. I am using the word “ecosystem” deliberately to emphasize that we, as bloggers, read, write, and interact within a complex network of relationships, which we might not always be aware of.

Many grand claims have been advanced for the Internet and its denizens, but what are the real circumstances in which we find ourselves? I will be citing some figures, taken from various studies, in an attempt to offer some perspective. Please take note that these are not pieces of the same puzzle—the studies I will mention were undertaken at different times and have different objectives and methodologies—and therefore cannot be put together to form a wholly coherent big picture. Still, it is a useful exercise to juxtapose them with each other so that we can gain some insight into a world whose potential is now and again being hyped.

First, let us take a look at some of the findings from Digital Philippines 2011: Yahoo!-Nielsen Net Index Highlights:

  • 30%: The total percentage of Internet users in national urban Philippines. This means that, if we peg the Philippine population at 90 million, at least 63 million Filipinos are not online. There are many reasons for this, but naturally the costs constitute a major factor—our power rates, for instance, are among the highest in Asia—as well as the poor state of our infrastructures.
  • 66%: The percentage of Internet users whose place of access to the Internet is via the Internet café. Private connections, while on the rise, are still not very common. Where one accesses the Internet may affect what kind of content one consumes; the most preferred types, incidentally, based on the same study, are entertainment-related: music, videos, images, and games.
  • 82%: The percentage of Internet uses who visit social networking sites whenever they go online. Social networking is the top activity among Filipinos, in fact.

The next set of figures come from Wave 3, a study on social media that was released by Universal McCann in 2008.

  • 90%: The percentage of Filipino Internet users who have read a blog at least once. Kindly take note that there is no indication of regular reading. To paraphrase the pertinent question, it was, “Thinking about using the Internet, have you ever read a blog?”
  • 64.9%: The percentage of Filipino Internet users who have started a blog at least once. Just like the previous item, there is not indication of regular writing, and the question was similarly worded.

This figure is from Philippine Trust Index, a 2011 study by communications consultancy firm EON Inc.:

  • 37%: The percentage of Internet users who say that they trust blogs, vis-à-vis other forms of media, such as radio, newspapers, or television—the last of which is the most influential and most trusted.

Now let’s take a look at some figures from the 2007 National Readership Survey [PDF] commissioned by the National Book Development Board (NBDB).

  • 92%: The percentage of Filipinos who say that they read. This looks high, but it actually represents a slight dip from 2003, the year of the previous survey, and the decline is largely attributable to the National Capital Region, despite having a high concentration of bookstores, libraries, and publishers.
  • 96%: The percentage of Filipinos who read non-schoolbooks (NSBs). This 96% is taken from the 83% who say they read books, by the way. The most popular book among Filipinos is the Bible, which was named by 67% of respondents, and the next most popular type are books on romance or love: about 33%.
  • 58%: The percentage of non-schoolbook readers who prefer reading in Tagalog. English comes in at 40%.
  • 26%: The percentage of non-schoolbook readers who always or often notice whether a given book has good reviews, as compared to those readers who sometimes, rarely, or never notice such. The question of bad reviews wasn’t raised, but it seems safe to assume that the figure would be about the same.

I am sure that these are depressing data for everyone. Based on the aforementioned figures, if you are a blogger who writes in English—which I suppose is most of us here—and if you tend to discuss books—again, likely the majority in this room—then the odds are that you are not communicating with a great many people here at home; due to infrastructural and cultural constraints, you will be unable to do so for quite a while. Certainly, if we are going to wage the “reading revolution” that NBDB Executive Director Andrea Pasion-Flores called for during her opening remarks, we will not be able to do it online—at least not just online. Perhaps it is activities like the Filipino ReaderCon that will have a more meaningful impact.

None of this is to say, however, that we should abandon blogging; only that we develop a healthy sense of proportion about its reach and influence. Besides, because cyberspace is still a kind of frontier territory for the Philippines, those of us fortunate enough to be in it now have many opportunities for exploration and innovation—for blazing the trails that others can follow. One the advantages of being part of a small community in which we are separated from each other by only a few social degrees is that we are still capable of fairly quick self-correction and self-regulation, for example.

In view of the prevailing conditions, what are some of the prospects and challenges that we face as bloggers, especially when it comes to behavior?

I will be making a fairly obvious point, but it has to be made anyway precisely because its obviousness leads people to overlook it: The Internet is a public place. Again: The Internet is a public place. (I like to compare it to a plaza, though one of infinite size.) If you can’t walk up to someone and tell him or her something to his or her face, then you probably shouldn’t be saying it online either. One of the more peculiar features of the Internet is its highly mediated character, which may be inimical to critical thought and compassion. People on Twitter and Facebook have gone absolutely insane over Robert Blair Carabuena, for instance: I have seen one Facebook page displaying his contact details and calling for his death.

We have to remind ourselves that there is always someone watching—that there is always a human being beyond the screen. Even if we can delete material that we regret posting, watch out: Google Cache, Internet Archive, or some other site may have already stored a copy of it. As the 2010 film The Social Network tells us, “The Internet’s not written in pencil […], it’s written in ink.”

One interesting case which you may wish to examine in your own time are the exchanges that were born out of a difference of opinion between two bloggers over a presentation made in April last year at iBlog7, an annual blogging summit. I will be naming names, because, as I have said, the Internet is a public place.

Earth Rullan was one of the speakers at this event, and her presentation was entitled, “Blogger Etiquette: How to be a Blogger with Integrity“. She is a lifestyle blogger with a fairly high profile, at least if the fact that she was chosen by Neutrogena as one of its brand ambassadors for a campaign back in 2010 is any indication. Faith Salazar—we know each other, though we are not related—was in the audience, and asked Rullan during the open forum what Rullan thought about bloggers who, after being tapped as endorsers for a given brand, jump ship to a competitor brand after their contracts expire. This was a pointed question, because Rullan, after her Neutrogena contract had expired, teamed up with a friend to join a contest for Pond’s in March 2011. Salazar later posted her take, “On Blogging Etiquette, Product Endorsements and Integrity“, in her blog, setting off a contentious, as well as enlightening, series of discussions that continue to be relevant to all of us today, particularly when money or an equivalent is introduced into the situation.

With regard to reviews, the writing of which I imagine to be the primary occupation of the book blogger, let me first say that these are absolutely vital to the life of a book. Reviews are not only judgments, but also invitations to dialogue—not so much with the author, however instructive that could turn out to be, but with other readers. Whether agreement is generated is unimportant: the point is that a book, out of all the millions and millions of books churned out in practically every part of the earth today, has been read and is being talked about. The kind of work that book bloggers do, then, can have significant effects on what will be written, published, and read in the future, and must be undertaken with a strong sense of responsibility.

In an essay, American poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum says that he looks at reviewing as a species of advocacy for the kind of literature that he loves: “Writing a review takes enormous work. I cannot imagine summoning the energy I didn’t feel that I needed to save a book from certain death, to wedge it into a crowded marketplace, to support a kind of writing that I esteem.” This, he adds, should not mean new titles only, and I agree with him: why not review old works, or books that you have encountered before? After all, to review means to view again.

Of course, practicing reviewing as advocacy doesn’t entail confining the body of your writing to the books that you like. Negative evaluations have their place as well, and are as necessary as positive ones. Whatever you may think of a work, provided your response to it is honest, thoughtful, and clearly argued, there is no reason to prevent yourself from expressing an opinion: few things are more dangerous than self-censorship. Let the author or your readers react as they will; should your piece turn out to be especially provocative, the resulting consensus or conflict could prove to be extremely educational—if not about the book itself, then at least about the quality of the minds that react to your review: the latter is indispensable in deciding which people are worth your time and energy to engage.

While once-and-for-all answers to questions of ethics are difficult, if not impossible, to find, I have found it useful to refer to the highest ideals and best practices of media with regard to my own blogging. (I do not wish to suggest that journalists invariably adhere to the code of ethics of their profession, or that bloggers are journalists—those are fraught issues better talked about at another time and place.) But perhaps constant self-assessment is the most helpful way to arrive at the right decisions—to my mind, it is definitely the most essential step. Questions we must each grapple with include: What are the values that I stand for? What courses of action are available to me? Which courses of action are consistent with my values? This process of self-assessment is crucial, because the actions of one blogger can reflect, for good or for ill, on the entire community.

Thank you.