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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Will vicious bloggers be downfall of business?

November 14, 2005

A Forbes magazine cover story has set the techie world ablaze with indignation (www.forbes.com). Forbes, perhaps most famous for its list of the world's wealthiest people, in its Nov. 14 issue ran a piece by Daniel Lyons portraying Internet blogs as nothing short of terrorist weapons targeting American businesses.

In "Attack of the Blogs," Lyons lists people and companies that were humiliated, brought low, had their share values demolished, or were otherwise savaged by vindictive bloggers.

For the uninitiated, "blog" is short for "Web log," which is essentially a nicely formatted place on the Web to write thoughts. They're like personal columns, but without editorial oversight. Most blogs are read by only a few hundred readers at most, both because there are so many blogs, and because they're usually very specialized. Ironically, Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard himself has a blog on the Forbes Web site. Blogs are everywhere. Most fall somewhere between benign and benighted. Most are about baseball, scary movies or just some teenager's angst.

But sometimes the bloggers are venomous, and it's those bloggers Lyons is up in arms about. However, he makes precious little attempt to say he's talking about only a small fraction of the blogging population, and it's this omission that has aroused the techie community spitting nails. In effect, Lyons leaves the reader believing that all or most bloggers are per se terrorists and should be pursued as such.

There's no question some bloggers are out for blood. In their missionary zeal to clean up corporate America, they can accuse any company, anywhere, of sins ranging from improper layoffs to outright fraud and international conspiracy. Bloggers can rarely be sued, both because they're hard to catch and because they're heavily armored in the First Amendment.

Lyons portrays these vigilantes as having enormous power to wound, and to keep wounding, as blogs can be found through searches months or years after their writing has gone stale and been forgotten. He cites cases where hapless corporate employees have been forced out of their jobs. He notes that some bloggers go beyond making outlandish statements, and release things like home phone numbers or e-mail addresses, so readers can make victims' lives even more difficult. He cites damage to industry leaders such as CNN, and to small consulting companies. Are blogs the "cure for the ills of democracy" taken too far?

Perhaps. In an era when working journalists are better-educated and more scrutinized than ever before, the vitriolic and renegade blogs can seem like dark shantytowns full of wannabe Michael Moores without his distinctive panache. They look like giant steps backward into the agitated, sensationalist writing of another century, when slanderous pamphlets and screeching yellow tabloids flew like flocks of pigeons from America's printing presses, targeting officials, corporations and politicians alike.

Lyons apparently thinks the bloggers need to go, but I have to draw back. Despite the case he tries to make, it's hard for me to imagine bloggers do as much damage as he says they do. The fanatics are read largely by other fanatics. The pamphlet era didn't kill American business, and blogs won't kill American business, either. It's true they can be annoying and even create momentary havoc, but this, too, shall pass.

Business is by its nature a bruising sport, with sudden spills and runs of bad fortune. A thick skin and an unshakable resolve are indispensable attributes in business, with or without a blogger's "nastygrams." A company whose investors head for the exit when a couple of blogs shriek in the night has deeper and more important problems than bloggers. Lyons even gives advice for striking back at bloggers, but it seems to me it's wasted effort that could more profitably be spent seeking market share or investment.

What Lyons has done is discover a small problem and portray it as an overwhelming one. Apple has inspired thousands of blogs, most of which are full of admiring messages, mixed with ravening condemnation of some product shortcoming or another. Still Apple thrives. Indeed, companies could do worse than read a few blogs to see what the vox populi is saying. Adrift in the vitriol are often specks of real concerns that need to be addressed.

Bloggers aren't millionaires or business owners. They pull no levers of power, make no big decisions, file no indictments. Yet they have seen their jobs sold, their benefits curtailed, and their faith in all business eroded to tatters by one massive industry scandal after another. Blogs are steam vents for the powerless, and like all such vents they can get scaldingly hot, but what comes out is still just steam.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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