This past Friday, there was a bit of a firestorm on Twitter when participants in the popular #fridayreads meme learned that some of the meme’s organizers were getting paid to promote books to the Friday Reads community. As is typical with Twitter controversies, the conversation quickly went from people asking questions to people making accusations and yelling boycott while others got defensive and stopped listening to the real concerns.
I’ve been participating in the Friday Reads meme since it started. There are things about it that I find silly. I think some of Friday Reads founder Bethanne Patrick’s tweets encouraging people to share are silly, and I dislike the whole “even cereal boxes count” philosophy, which seems to be more about numbers than about reading. And I’m not sure why books read on Friday are more worth talking about than books read on other days. However, I enjoy seeing what others are reading, and I’ve had some nice twitter conversations with others who take a minute to share their reading on Friday. It’s fun.
As annoyed as I get at the tendency to monetize every little thing, I also don’t much mind that Bethanne and her team (Rebecca Schinsky and Erin Cox) have found a way to make some money from the venture. What I do mind, however, is that it hasn’t been clear that some of the Friday Reads content on their feeds is paid content. This is a serious issue.
[Edited to add: Bethanne has responded to the questions surrounding Friday Reads on her site, and I encourage everyone to check it out.]
Many of you know that I work in magazine publishing. In my world, we try to make it abundantly clear what content in our magazine is advertising and what content is selected by the editors. The ads look like ads, and the editorial content looks like an article or column. If we ever get an ad that looks too much like editorial content, we require the advertiser to redesign it or we add the word “Advertisement” at the top of the page. Readers do not have to hunt around to figure out what content is paid for and what content is not. They do have to understand the conventions of magazine publishing, and every now and then, someone does complain about an ad as if they thought it constituted an endorsement of the product. In 11 years in the business, I can remember this happening at my magazines no more than once or twice. People understand the conventions.
In the new world of social media, the separation is less clear. On Friday, some of the Friday Reads defenders claimed that the paid content was clearly marked as sponsored content and that readers who followed Bethanne’s stream could see what was paid and what wasn’t. But the thing is, it wasn’t clear at all. It looks to me like the team was using a shorthand and a format that was clear and understandable to them but that wasn’t clear to those outside the circle. Never once did I see the word “paid” or even “sponsored” before Bethanne tweeted about how the program operated on Friday morning.
So what material is paid for? According to the Friday Reads FAQ, publishers pay to offer weekly giveaways through Friday Reads. They also pay for Twitter interviews with Bethanne. This information is available on the Friday Reads website, so the team has not been hiding it. The trouble is that before Friday there was no reason for readers to go seek it out. For a lot of people, that means it might as well be hidden. As a blogger, I know that publishers frequently offer books free for giveaways and do not pay the blogger who hosts the giveaway. Why then would I think the Friday Reads team was accepting money for giveaways? As a professional editor, I know that people do not pay to be interviewed in our magazine. Why then would I suspect that the Twitter interviews in Bethanne’s stream are paid for? There was nothing so unusual about this content to make me go and seek out the FAQs.
Because what the Friday Reads team is doing is new, I’m willing to cut them a little slack and say they weren’t intentionally trying to deceive anyone. That’s what Bethanne has said in response to this superb analysis of the situation from Katherine Catmull. Now that they’ve been alerted to the problem, I hope that we’ll see the paid material more clearly marked. Because Twitter is ephemeral, I don’t think the organizers can count on a single tweet on Friday to handle it. (Surely they know this, given that they don’t count on a single tweet to rally the participants.) I really liked Katherine Catmull’s suggestion of a #paid hashtag, and I prefer #paid over #sponsored because the book blogging world as well as sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads have set a precedent of free publisher-sponsored giveaways. Also, paid has fewer letters than sponsored, which looks like a win/win to me. There are probably other good ways to manage the disclosure, but my own future participation in the meme will probably depend on how clear it is.
[Edited to add: Bethanne is now tagging posts about their giveaways (and other paid efforts, I assume) with #promo. A good result, IMO.]
And before I finish, I do want to respond to a couple of patently offensive comments made by the Friday Reads defenders. Some people seemed to want to discredit people’s concerns because they were raised by Jennifer Weiner last week when she was complaining about this Book Riot piece (a piece she had every right to be aggravated by as it oversimplified a complex issue). The overlap between the Friday Reads team and the Book Riot team made it look personal, and maybe it was, but that doesn’t make the concern any less valid.
Also, a few people wondered why people weren’t also complaining about paid bookstore placements and Amazon suggestions and online ads and so on. You know what? I don’t like those things either, and when I go to a big box bookstore, I tend to browse the stacks so I can be directed by my own interests. If I look at the tables, I keep in mind that the publishers paid to have their books there. Do I wish it were more clear? Sure. But a bookstore is more obviously a place of commerce than a Twitter stream is. If the publishers weren’t paying to be there, the bookstore might still be choosing the most sellable books, not necessarily the best ones.
For those who are concerned about the lack of transparency, I also have a couple of thoughts. One is that if you enjoy the meme and don’t mind that your participation is making money for someone (the number of participants will make it more appealing to publishers), keep at it. If you just don’t like seeing paid content that isn’t clearly marked, you probably won’t see it if you aren’t following the Friday Reads organizers and if you don’t follow the hashtag as a whole. If you just don’t enjoy the meme, the answer is easy enough.
My plan is to watch and see what happens. I can be a pretty cynical person, but I find that I’m happier and get along better with people if I assume good intentions. So I’m assuming the team behind Friday Reads didn’t realize that they weren’t being as clear as they could be to their Twitter audience. For the most part, their responses on Friday were appropriate and reasonable, and they can’t control their defenders. I don’t mind their making some money, but I do mind not knowing when I’m reading content and when I’m reading an ad. If I know, I know how to react to the information.
And for those who aren’t on Twitter at all, sorry for the shop talk. Back to more obvious bookishness next week. I’m thinking about next year’s reading, and if I’m not in a post-Thanksgiving turkey and pie coma, you can expect a post about that.