I happened to be reading Howard Bloom's book The Genius of the Beast when I saw something odd happening in social media - there was a minor blow up on a science blogging site called Scienceblogs.com over a new column that would be written by people from Pepsi, which threatened to become a major blow-up because of social media, and it got me thinking about re-purposing and symbol stacks.
Re-purposing is nothing new - anyone who has turned a milk cartoon into a baseball glove, as I watched Sammy Sosa do one time, understands that re-purposing works. And sometimes it is necessary. Conditions change and, as Howard notes, we all dance to the 'pendulum of re-purposing'; we begin life as an embryo and then dramatically change to an infant and dramatically change into a child, a young adult and so on until we finally reach our ultimate sort of re-purposing - a corpse.
Those are all big physical changes, of course, and we have just gone through a big economic and cultural one in the recession of 2008 and drastic changes lead to vibrations in our 'symbol stacks'. If you are familiar with C or a programming language, you know what a symbolic stack is; it is a virtual path backwards when you debug a program. In an economic context, a symbol stack is something different. In the beginning, if you had vegetables and I had meat, we would establish a value and trade. Over time, as markets grew and more people had more goods, a first order symbol stack was created, a precious metal like silver and gold. Its value in goods was established and over time, as it worked, the symbol became interchangeable with the item, part of society's "scaffold of habit."
Obviously you can extrapolate that out to currency as a second order symbol and then credit cards as a third order symbol - the benefit being the higher order symbol you use, the more creativity you have in transactions. The higher order the symbol, the bigger lever you have to make things happen. But it also becomes more abstract, and harder for most to understand the pitfalls. How many of you are experts in credit default swaps and US dollar index future contracts? Not me. So when changes happen that shake our faith in symbols, re-purposing can be dramatic. I had a programmer ask me to pay him in gold a year ago. He wanted a lower order symbol than currency. At least he didn't ask me for sheep.
How does that relate to science communication? There is a scaffold of habit in science communication too, and it has been erected by the audience and by some writers and it goes like this; scientists write and get paid, the audience reads for free and sees advertisements and we are all ethical. In economics, when a symbol stack like the dollar fails, there is a panic and re-purposing happens.(1) What happens when a symbol stack fails in science communication?
You expect me to say Science 2.0 emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of multi-million and billion-dollar companies, right? No, but good guess. I don't think the 'symbol' here has failed to any extent that re-purposing will happen in science communication, but there may at least be some transparency we gain. And some honesty about what getting paid means.
Question: If you get paid from a corporate marketing budget to write what you want to write, is it materially any different than if you are paid based on corporate R&D to write what you want to write? The issue at Scienceblogs.com was a new blog (2) written by employees at Pepsi on (don't laugh) nutrition. They haven't even written an article yet but two bloggers are threatening to walk because they feel like they are selling out if Pepsi employees write there.
Now, Pepsi is a for-profit corporation but paid writers are paid writers. Scienceblogs people were positively gushing over the fact that similar corporate blogs written by CERN, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the SETI Institute, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Brookhaven National Laboratory set up shop there - and the list of public relations blogs there is longer than that. What are those people going to write about that is ethically any different than Pepsi? No idea, Pepsi has not written anything yet but the implication is that whatever Pepsi writes about will be unethical, so Scienceblogs paid writers do not want to be associated with Pepsi paid writers, but blogs written by paid writers from HHMI, CERN, etc. are all completely fine.
And Scienceblogs has hosted plain old corporate-sponsored blogs before, like Collective Imagination (GE) and Next Generation Energy (Shell) along with Invitrogen, L'Oreal, Dow Chemical and Schering-Plough. How is this different? It isn't.
It's disquieting to label someone unethical because they happen to work for a corporation. There are plenty of unethical researchers working in academia and plenty of "non-profit" institutions that happen to have tens of millions of dollars in the bank.
Where does that taint of suspicion end? What about researchers who get corporate funding? Right here in California, at U.C. Davis, we published an article because Mars,Inc. funded 20 investigators and created a chair in the nutrition department, spending $10 million on research just at UC Davis since 1997. The article was written because there was an entire "Neurobiology Of Chocolate" panel at the AAAS meeting that year and only one of the researchers was not funded by Mars. One of the panel's organizers was Harold Schmitz, a visiting professor at UC Davis and the Chief Science Officer of ... Mars, Inc.
If Schmitz wrote under a UC Davis brand rather than Mars, Inc., what would be the difference in the content?
The fact remains that writers at Scienceblogs are not for sale any more than someone working for Pepsi is, nor any less - both are paid, some at Scienceblogs get paid thousands of dollars per month. Are they unethical?
Not to me, but none of us write there. And I am betting no one there re-purposes to Nature Networks, when they realize they would be writing for free.(3)
Other takes on the issue updated continually until people stop talking about it:
Scienceblogs: Pharyngula - Say hello to…PepsiCo??!? WTF? - it does not matter what anyone else writes, PZ is 50% of their traffic and is the number one science blogging site all on his own if he walks, so the fact that he came down against this means Pepsi is gone.
Knight Science Journalism Tracker: ScienceBlogs trashes its bloggers’ credibility - "The American Society of Magazine Editors has fought this fight for decades, working hard to establish standards for advertising in magazines." and "Sometimes old media has something important to say to new media. This is one of those times."
Guardian Science Blog: Scienceblogs, we have a problem - "Much of the reaction is focused, unsurprisingly, around the potential for conflicts of interest. PZ Myers wastes no time in being diplomatic. "
Scienceblogs: Laelaps - A Pepsi-Induced Hiatus - "The launch of the PepsiCo blog sharply underscores my mounting frustration with SEED. The SEED management team has repeatedly failed to treat me and my fellow bloggers with courtesy and respect, and this latest event goes beyond disrespect into actively undermining our credibility." While PZ Myers is The Guy at Scienceblogs, he has a certain wit and doesn't mind blowing people up, whereas Brian Switek is more the moral compass there, so this is not good.
Scienceblogs: ERV - SciBlogs caves to hysterics - "In 2008-2009, we had a sponsored blog here by Invitrogen. As far as I know, Invitrogen had no apparent editorial control over what got posted there. As a result, the blog turned into an EPIC TRAIN WRECK, when several SciBloggers took it upon themselves to post anti-GMO rants. Now, none of these SciBloggers had any experience with GMOs in the lab. There was no science content in these posts. This was simply a platform for these people to use their position of privilege at ScienceBlogs to push a political agenda, completely devoid of science." Whaaa? Scienceblogs put its progressive agenda ahead of science? Forget looking for Pepsi And Shell, someone should ask if the Democratic National Committee has been funding the site the entire time.
Knight Science Journalism Tracker: ScienceBlogs trashes credibility: Leaked response from editor - "If the credibility of ScienceBlogs was in doubt this morning, it has vanished this afternoon." They may be a little too delighted at the threatened and real departures. Blogging is not journalism and their writers are, for the most part, not journalists, so some of this could be Old Media "I told you so". Paul seems to think Scienceblogs is all of blogging, though he can be forgiven for that, since Scienceblogs people think the same thing. They are 1/3 but the rest of us do just fine without "long-term sponsorship contracts".
Southern Fried Scientist: Blogging with integrity - "It’s about trust. You trust us, or you don’t ... But the network matters too. The network lends credibility. Informally, many readers who trust our opinions also trust that we read well informed, honest blogs as well." Here's a bit of reality from the many millions who did not trust the Scienceblogs network long before today - no one joined there because of trust, they joined because it is popular. And it is popular because it is controversial, not because the science is better than many other places. 7 people have said they will leave, 4 likely will. And they will be replaced rather quickly because readers may care about trust but writers there want to be read.
Forbes blog: Pepsi Enrages Science Bloggers - "greatly diminishes the credibility of ScienceBlogs by providing a corporation with a platform to advertise to readers without actually calling it advertising"
Guardian: Letter from Seed editor Adam Bly to ScienceBlogs.com contributors - "We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry." But academic institutions can write for free because it increases prestige, whereas industry scientists need to write a check?
Rennie's Last Nerve: Teetering “Chinese Wall” Falls on Scienceblogs - "As someone who spent almost 15 years as the editor in chief of science magazine where these kinds of conflicts between editorial and advertising always threatened to rear their head, I’m not unsympathetic to the bind that Sb found itself in." "Unfortunately, in this case, Sb chose poorly, and the uprising among its bloggers is the result."
Guardian: This isn't the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence - "As for Bhopal, it's a cautionary call on our part as we're in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed's photography in their own brand campaigns)." No surprise that they tried to spike stories that would harm them. They have tried to spike entire sites that might cost them some money.
The Scholarly Kitchen: The Pepsi Syndrome: Did ScienceBlogs Sell Out, or Was This Just Business As Usual? - "One of ScienceBlogs’ most prolific bloggers is an employee of the Public Library of Science, and a huge amount of what he writes is advertising for their journals. Bora is an interesting and compelling writer, but many of his posts are merely copy and paste listings of papers released in PLoS journals and their abstracts. He’s using ScienceBlogs as a marketing platform for his employer, promoting their content, adding valuable links to help search engine optimization, and actually gaming PLoS’ own system for article level metrics". Look for Bora to respond with "But ... but ... they're CONSERVATIVES" to rally a defense for the companies that pay him. Like the other site he uses 'conservative' as an insult for, though, this one is not involved in payola for blogs and killing stories for advertisers.
The Consumerist: PepsiCo Buys Its Way Onto Science Blog Network As A Food Nutrition Expert - "Yesterday, PepsiCo placed a full-page, semi-permanent advertorial on the ScienceBlogs network. Or actually, it created a micro-site within ScienceBlogs to provide compelling user-centric content that builds PepsiCo's position as a thought leader in the field of nutrition. Or wait, no, it's actually a blog, just like all the other science themed blogs on the network."
Wandering Gaia: Why I exposed Seed - "My reason behind telling this tale is that some people think that the ScienceBlogs fiasco has been a lot of fuss about nothing...Those who left the security of ScienceBlogs may not have jeopardised their entire earnings, but it was a brave decision and I want to let them know that they were right – this is not some one-off by Seed, the company is grubby and without integrity. And it should be revealed as such."
Decision Tree: PepsiCo at ScienceBlogs - "Whether we like it or not, the prepared food industry will be a major player in our food supply in the near future. We need to find novel ways to engage these companies to improve health and nutrition in society."
Scienceblogs: Neuron Culture - A food blog I can't digest - "Hoo boy. I never thought I'd have to resign a blogging position in protest. But so I find." Dobbs is a serious writer so blogging is not his primary income but is he taking an ethical stand or abandoning a place he loves when he needs it most? Tough call. If he does not change his mind, check him out at Neuron Culture.
Scienceblogs: Respectful Insolence - Blindsided by my corporate overlords and PepsiCo - "There's a problem brewing and ScienceBlogs, a disturbance in the Force, if you will, and it's a doozy." The Force? Don't they call themselves The Borg? That's a completely different show.
Scienceblogs: Thus spake Zuska - "Perhaps a more interesting question is, should I be outta here now anyway? If an enterprise like ScienceBlogs cannot be funded except by taking money from sources that you and I, Dear Reader, deem offensive and unethical - why should I continue to contribute? "
Scienceblogs: Causobon's Book - "But I'm asking that they separate out the Pepsi blog, and put Pepsi in the logo, and make it clear it falls in a different category than all the other blogs. Otherwise, my blog will be departing."
Scienceblogs: Observations of a Nerd - "What bothers me far more than the presence of this sponsored blog is the mindset of commenters and non-Sciblings who have now decided to boycott ScienceBlogs for this."
Scienceblogs: Good Math, Bad Math - "For now, I'm suspending my blog for a few days. If Seed decides to back out of this spectacular stupidity, then I'll start posting here again. If not, then I'll go looking for a new home for GM/BM." Discover is going to be laughing all the way to the bank. No one would leave for the same money, but if you make them mad, they will leave for less.
Scienceblogs: Culture Dish - Culture Dish Doesn't Live Here Anymore - "I'm now on a Pepsi-Induced Hiatus, however like like David Dobb's and Blake Stacy's, my hiatus from ScienceBlogs will be permanent."
Adam Bly rightly appeals to diversity, though for the wrong audience, while reminding them they are big and one writer or another bolting won't change that. And maybe disclosing more than writers who chose to turn a blind eye to the obvious wanted to know:
"Finally, let me address the economics. SB, like nearly all free content sites, is sustainable because of advertising. But advertising is itself highly unpredictable, as the last year has shown the industry. And securing advertising around topics like physics and evolution is even more challenging as the dearth of ad pages in science magazines indicates. We started experimenting with sponsored blogs a couple of years ago and decided to market long-term sponsorship contracts instead of sporadic advertising contracts."
Scienceblogs: Common Knowledge - Of Pepsi and ScienceBlogs... - "...perspective means that the choice is understandable, not that the situation was handled well. If a site like SB is going to do this, then the entire process must be painfully transparent. I've watched as sites I love, like Fark.com and some of the various Gawker blogs, began to accept sponsored links - but they are LABELED as such. "
Discover: The Loom - Oh, Pepsi, What Hath Thou Wrought? - "Over the next couple weeks, I plan to build a list of bloggers who refused to drink the Kool Aid and tell you where to go to read them now."
Scienceblogs: Speakeasy Science - Jet Lag - "So my questions at this point are mostly selfish - is the remaining community still a comfortable home? Some of my favorite bloggers have chosen, after all, to stay. Is this the right place for a chemistry and culture blog still? Was I wrong to give up the pure pleasures of a personal blog where I'm responsible for no one's mistakes but my own?" It depends on why she went there. I assume she read it prior to joining, so she likes their in-your-face attitude. Or she liked the size and the audience. Neither of those things have changed.
Scienceblogs: Science is Culture (Adam Bly started a blog) - Referring to Wandering Gaia above, "If that's an email that came from someone here, then it reflects an isolated mistake. I would suggest asking Ms. Vince's other previous big employers in science media if they've made any." I guess he doesn't understand what science is, since he insists it is culture, but that is a different matter. It is interesting that after nearly 5 years he finally started a blog. The knock on him was always that he wouldn't respond to anyone on Scienceblogs, making them feel like they were just a marketing arm to sell Seed subscriptions. Now it is the only thing that gives the company value.
DC's Improbable Science: Pepsigeddon: why bloggers shouldn’t be paid - "Seed pay their contributors per page view, though I haven’t yet been able to discover how much (will anyone tell me?)"
Scienceblogs: Abel Pharmboy - PepsiCo blog, Food Frontiers, is an affront to those who built the reputation of ScienceBlogs - "When I joined ScienceBlogs four years ago last month, I was contractually promised complete editorial control over my content, including the right to ridicule anything ScienceBlogs does, and have never once been asked to adjust any of my writing. Never. Not once. Nor has a single blogger I know ever been asked to alter content. I specifically point this out because the Food Frontiers blog lists Evan Lerner as ScienceBlogs editor - he does not edit my content or anyone else's." I have to wonder that there is any legitimate discussion at all of the transparency of Pepsi researchers when the critic doesn't use his real name.
Scienceblogs: Abel Pharmboy - Two questions about Pepsigate and #SbFAIL: Contracts, principles, and credibility - "There has been much congratulatory commentary regarding those bloggers who were "principled" and left ScienceBlogs in protest...However, is it implicit that those of us who remain at ScienceBlogs are "unprincipled" or are otherwise lacking in credibility?" - It's a good question and, if it turns out the people who stayed are paid the most, self-answering. He has a technical issue which prevented him from doing a poll on the issue but we are happy to help. Typepad or whatever that thing is, is still PHP so we can get him set up in minutes. In their defense, the people who staying may be the ones who realize now is when Scienceblogs needs them most - conduct Scienceblogs ridicules Catholics for regarding abuse scandals, etc.
Scienceblogs: Observations of a Nerd - Why I'm Staying - "I couldn't see a reason to be more pissed at this instance than any other. After all, Seed has put a blog from Shell on here - let's be honest, a year ago, that could have been BP and no one would have blinked, even though now bloggers would be up in arms about it. There seems to me to be a bit of a double standard, that certain corporations are OK and others aren't."
Scienceblogs: Brookhaven bits&bytes - A clarification - Kendra Wilkinson clarifies that "There's no money being exchanged between Brookhaven and ScienceBlogs. Of course, we see this as a good public relations opportunity. But that doesn't mean that this space will only be used to redistribute press releases (and I hope our first posts have shown that)." Well, those of us outside Scienceblogs do not doubt anyone in science outreach in advance, but that goes for corporate bloggers as well as institutional ones. The fact remains that an independent blogger might be able to criticize Brookhaven and this blog will not. So the only real difference is that Pepsi was forced to pay for access to the Scienceblogs audience.
Cocktail Party Physics: growing pains - "I did note the World Science Fair and US Science&Engineering blogs when they appeared, and felt a twinge of dismay at the recent inclusion of blogs by specific research institutions rather than individuals. I just assumed this was part of an education and outreach effort on the part of SEED Media. Now, in the wake of Pepsipocalypse, I'm not so sure. I, personally, would really like to know which blogs are paying to be there" ... well, we know that the World Science Festival and USA Festival barter advertising and we know that Weizmann, Brookhaven, etc. pay no money. The fact remains that independent bloggers could be critical of any of those organizations if they choose whereas PR blogs, for-profit or not, whether we like them or not, cannot be anything but PR.
True Slant: 'PepsiGate' Rocks the Science Blogging World - "PepsiGate may be over, but the questions it has raised about the commingling of marketing and journalistic content are just beginning to swarm in the blogosphere. And, clearly, much damage to the credibility of SEED and ScienceBlogs has already been done."
SkeptiFem: Pepsi '10 - "...many people pointed out how other corporate blogging of the past on SB went on without outrage. Most people were unaware of it. It isn't like this was a one time lapse in judgment on the part of SEED on this issue, it has apparently happened a few times before, something you completely failed to mention in your defense- while in the next breath accusing the writer of the gaurdian article to be "unbalanced" for not reporting things that illustrate SEED's journalistic integrity."
(1) What symbol should have fallen during the 2008 recession? Credit cards. Because they are not 'real' money the same way dollars were not real 100 years ago, unless they were backed by gold - a lower symbol. But injecting $8 trillion into banks kept them from collapsing and so a new symbol has survived.
(2) Also new, they went a little Science 2.0 and figured out that our supercategory toolbar was cool.
(3) Though they might start their own confederation of blogs and make a go of it. Selling advertising is hard work and they would have a greater appreciation for what Adam Bly does over there if they had to do it and not just snipe the company that pays them. As the CEO of another science media company joked to me one time, "I am convinced media buyers went into that business because they hate science."
Symbol Stacks And Science Communication In The Scienceblogs Pepsigate Scandal