The last time I was in San Francisco I found a great little blues bar, but I’m not going to tell you about it. It’s a tiny little place in North Beach – damn, I’ve said too much already – but I really don’t want you to know about it. The place was pretty full with locals but I was still able to squeeze in at the bar and the beer was cold and cheap. If I told you where it is, you’d tell other people and then the next time I’m in San Francisco I probably wouldn’t be able to get in.
This bar is not a client of mine and it’s not owned by friends or people I met at a conference. It has not given me free tickets to give away to people who re-tweet this message in a contest. The owners have not done me a favour or promised to buy me a drink if I mention the bar’s name. In fact, I don’t even know who owns it.
I’m not going to tell you about this great little SF blues bar because there’s really nothing in it for me. The bar seems to be doing very well and if I tell you about it, there’s a good chance you’ll wreck it for me. I speak from experience.
Several years ago, I was dating a newspaper reporter who worked in the “lifestyles” section of a local newspaper. She liked my white shirts. My white shirts were hand-made by a strange little man who charged me considerably less than off-the-rack shirts at any decent men’s wear store. My girlfriend kept asking me where I got my shirts made and I kept refusing to tell her. But she was persistent and eventually I gave in.
She wrote a story about my shirt-maker. First the prices went up, then it took longer to get shirts made and then the quality of the shirts went down.
See where I’m going with this?
Too much of what we read in social media is rooted in self-interest. Just as fishermen jealously guard their favorite spots, no one likes to broadcast their secret places. Unless there’s something in it for them. We might tell one or two friends about a great little brunch place but do we want to let a thousand or more people know and risk not getting a seat the next time we feel like Eggs Benny?
The motivation for a mainstream reporter is simple. They are paid to discover the best shirt-makers or brunch spots and they have a code of ethics that frowns on freebies. That’s why most legitimate restaurant reviewers make reservations under a fake name and pay for their meals.
Bloggers and tweeters, on the other hand, often crow about the free meals and parties they attend or the tech toys and automobiles they are given to use for weeks at a time. I’ve yet to read a bad on-line review about those freebies, or even an admission that the fabulous time they had was comped.
In theory, I have nothing against social media shilling for someone. But I get annoyed when those same freeloading hacks are heralded as pioneers of new media.
If you write about someone because they gave you something, it’s not new journalism it’s new advertising.