Monday, October 03, 2011

ARTICLE: Ethics and Food Blogging

Things were so much better, back in the old days. Life was as slow as the women and everything made sense, except for the way women were described. But then the internet came along and—gosh—decided to move heaps fast and stuff. So fast that it starts moving on to new places before people can understand what was going on at that last place.

Which is probably why food blogs get a lot of critical discussion, despite being a fun, delicious and inspiring hobby for most.

While food bloggers just go about their business, people are freaking out because FOOD BLOGS ARE OUT OF CONTROL (TM) (note: you have to read that while screaming). Food blogs have kept doing things when people are still yet to really know what the whole point of food blogs is. If any.

We have papers and newspapers and stuff (ie anything printed on a tree/creature) and their food-related words have worked pretty well for the last few million years. So why do food blogs have to be so different? It boggles the mind because they should be identical, since the model has been so perfected.

Note: I am fully aware that the sarcastic tone and abrupt shifting of phrase is not really doing anything except make this post hard to follow. I am also aware that no one is ready this so this note is for myself, mainly. So freakin’ meta!

There has been a lot of disjointed discussion lately around ethics in food blogging. I say disjointed because a few people have mentioned it, but no one has had a MASSIVE think about it.

There was more structured discussion a year or two back when there was a voluntary code of ethics launched for bloggers. Some bloggers got together and decided that they’d put together a short code of ethics that broadly fell into the following categories:
- Be responsible for anything you post; Blogging is akin to actually being an author/publisher.
- Don’t be a dick.
- Disclose any freebies.
- Follow the same rules/ethics as journalists.

Since then, there has been a plethora of articles comparing food blogging to traditional (read: tree based) food writing (admittedly, mostly by the latter group). I don’t really see them as structured discussions on ethics in food blogging, since the extent of that is mostly the odd like thrown in that usually says “bloggers are only in it for free food and they don’t even disclose their free food!!!!!”

Must be a terrible bunch, these food bloggers; Only out to get free food and punch people in the dicks.

And that’s probably why there hasn’t been a whole heap of dialogue on the topic: everyone slightly interested in the topic pretty much thinks that it will all be fine if bloggers just stopped being dicks.

But that’s completely missing the point.

Blogging, by definition, is a journal of the writer’s thoughts. I admit that it may be a simplistic, but it’s broadly correct and representative of food bloggers. Most food bloggers start blogging merely to share thoughts on food. The overwhelming majority do not start a food blog to gain free food or build a profitable site, as some articles seem to suggest.

The offline equivalent of these blogs would be a personal notepad or a scrapbook; Something that allows the writer to enter their thoughts on food or on a dish that they’re cooking. It may even be a group of friends that they talk about food with or share restaurant experiences.

Does anyone suggest that people act ethically when writing in their notebook or when talking with friends about food? I propose that it is similarly foolish to suggest a code of ethics for the online equivalent of these interactions.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t legal or moral considerations, because there are. But they aren’t up for debate. Bloggers have legal considerations any time they publish something online, whereas they may not when just talking to friends. But I’m not going to pretend to know anything about that.

The moral considerations are somewhat similar to the legal considerations in that they aren’t really up for debate: society has it’s moral expectations of what is published or said, for better or worse. There is no moral difference between lying in a restaurant review on a food blog to lying when you tell friends about your restaurant experience in person. If you get sprung, you get judged in roughly the same way.

The supposed “anonymity” of a blogger makes no difference to this either, in case you were going to suggest that. The same legal boundaries apply, and the same moral judgements will be made to the character that the anonymous blogger has created.

While the concept of blog readers following “characters” and not the actual person (even if the food blogger is a real person that isn’t hiding behind an alias or shortened name) is another idea worth exploring, I don’t see it greatly impacting on the topic of ethics in food blogging. No, my main objection to a discussion on ethics for food blogging is related more to the format itself: the internet blog.

The internet is pretty fucken weird. Despite popular belief (the popular belief of people that like to talk about food blogs, which is, ironically, not a very popular thing), most people don’t read a blog like they would a publication. That is, they don’t religiously read that blog and only that. The internet has taught us that information is only as relevant as how current it is. Real world publications are followed because they cover what the reader wants, in the general tone of what the reader wants. There is little benefit in reading an article on the same event from a different news provider.

People buy newspapers because it gives them the most relevant news in the way that they want it. A blog is never going to be as comprehensive as a newspaper. People will generally read a large selection of food blogs to provide that same level of coverage. If at all: many people eschew the following of blogs and follow aggregation sites which collate food blog content (ie Urbanspoon, Foodgawker, RSS feed aggregators) and remove any attachment to the author. When using these sites, the reader will confer with a number of sources and form an opinion. Though If a certain food blogger is found to share similar opinions on restaurants then their opinion may carry more weight than others.

In short, individual authors don’t matter a whole heap. Food blogs are followed for either the currency of the information or the similar ideas shared by the reader. I could be cynical and say that pictures--and not content--are a main reason too, but I’ll abstain.

The internet blurs the line of what is ethical. How can someone that illegally downloads music demand a code of ethics in food blogging?

Or, more accurately, why would someone that illegally downloads music CARE if each and every food blog is behaving ethically?

The vast majority of food blog readers are following the rules of the internet and:
1.Only follow what’s current.
2.Reading a number of food blogs to form an opinion.

The relationship between the reader and the food blogger is currency and quantity. Quality of writing plays only a supporting role. It’s also worth observing that it’s generally the same people calling for a code of ethics in food blogging who are also pining for better quality writing in food blogs. How can you have the former before you have the latter?

I don’t argue that an ethical food blog is a good blog and I’m probably one of those people calling for better writing and more ethics in food blogging. But codes of ethics should only be discussed when they’re appropriate. A journalist needs to follow a code of ethics because people read their work and assume it is truthful and transparent; people read food blogs because they contain tidbits of information about food-related matters that the reader is interested in. People do not read just one or two food blogs and take their word as gospel. The tangibility of a newspaper or a magazine is a different level of publication to a hastily written internet journal. While there are still legal and moral considerations, only one needs to have strict ethical concerns.

As an aside, these ethical concerns that journalists abide by have to be representative of the ethical concerns of the publication they’re writing for. A journalist operating with no ethics won’t (or shouldn’t, there are exceptions) last at a publication if their standards are not met. The food blogger is. The food blogger, just like the journalist, is operating to the standards of their publication and are—like the journalist—writing to that standard, even if it is a (much, in some cases) lower one.

To summarise, I believe that a code of ethics for food blogging is pointless for the following reasons.
1.While it is still a form of publication, and internet blog is not written or read in the same ways as something like a newspaper or magazine. Therefore, you cannot apply the same rules.
2.Food blogs are closer to real world conversations about food and restaurants than they are to newspaper/magazine articles.
3.There are still legal and moral concerns, but they are already assumed. Anyone not following them in a food blog will be dealt with in similar ways to a physical newspaper or food magazine.
4.The internet itself blurs the ethical line. Food bloggers are merely playing in that ethical environment.
5.While a high standard of writing and ethics in a food blog is desirable, a code is not appropriate and will not be successful in an online environment.


san diego windshield replacement said...

I need this information badly. Im into culinary studies now.

Jobe said...

Oh really? I'm so disappointed to hear that you're leaving the windshield replacement business. Friends in San Diego have said that you're the best at what you do. You're gifted. Borderline genius, they say.

They also say you're not that great at windshield repairs--always so eager to just replace the windshield--but that's neither here nor there.

I wish you the best. If you apply the same knack to food that you have with windshield replacement then you are surely one of the rising stars of the American food scene.