Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Free On Board

There's no shortage of travails and troubles in this world that would seem worthy of fixing. Thankfully, we no longer have to concern ourselves with one of the more worrisome among them as the U.S. government is finally cracking down on gift giving to bloggers (WSJ-sub req):

The government wants to make it a little harder for bloggers to shill products online for fun and profit.

New guidelines released by the Federal Trade Commission say bloggers must disclose any money or freebies they receive in exchange for writing product reviews, a fast-growing and loosely regulated way for companies to market everything from diapers to movies. The move is an effort to apply the same rules that already cover broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines to the Wild West marketplace of the World Wide Web.

High time for such a step say I. For too long I have been at the mercy of these devious bloggers pitching snake oil and other products that they had received for free, but were not subject to government sanction for failing to disclose. Finally, I can rest easy knowing the boys in D.C. are on the watch.

Wait a second. Fraters Libertas is a blog, isn't it? And therefore we as individuals would be considered bloggers. Kinda puts things in a different light, doesn't it?

This sort of government interference is unacceptable. We shall not stand idly by while our precious freedoms are encroached upon once again. Aggressive action is required to counter this effort and civil disobedience may be in order. The FTC will have to pry these gifts from our cold dead hands!

Bloggers and others who are paid or give freebies to promote products online will be required to offer some sort of written disclosure for readers, the FTC said, or face possible fines of as much as $11,000 per violation.

Ahem, ahem. Well now, since we are all upright, law-abiding citizens of the republic we of course shall abide by such rules from this point forward. When Saint Paul's forthcoming series of posts on the wonders of male enhancement comes out, you can be sure that full disclosure will be made available.

However, there are still those who are skeptical:

Ed Morrissey, a conservative blogger, questioned how far the FTC's rules would extend. "If I get a free tube of toothpaste in the mail and say nice things about it on Twitter, Facebook, or in a PTA meeting, do I have to disclose it as a freebie or pay the $11,000 fine the FTC imposes?" he wrote. "What kind of disclosure can one fit into a 140-character Twitter message, anyway?"

Clearly Ed is in the back pocket of Big Toothpaste and anything he posts in the future about cavity fighting, whitening, and minty freshness should be taken with a grain of salt.

While we're on the subject of disclosure, I should point out that I don't pay for the beers featured in the Beer of the Week series. They are provided courtesy of Glen Lake Wine and Spirits, something that should be pretty obvious. Lest you think that I'm taking advantage of their good graces let me assure you that I rarely walk out of the liquor store without at least two or three other items in hand that I have paid for. Remember, there is no such thing as free beer.

Yesterday's WSJ carried an interesting--and somewhat related--piece on how many internet critics are anything but critical when it comes to their reviews (sub req):

One of the Web's little secrets is that when consumers write online reviews, they tend to leave positive ratings: The average grade for things online is about 4.3 stars out of five.

Mr. Luster is part of a movement on the Web that's taking aim at 4.3, a figure reported as the average by companies like Bazaarvoice Inc., which provides review software used by nearly 600sites. Amazon.com Inc. says its average is similar.

Many companies have noticed serious grade inflation. Google Inc.'s YouTube says the videos on its site average 4.6 stars, because viewers use five-star ratings to "give props" to video makers. Buzzillions.com, which aggregates reviews from 3,000 sites, has tracked millions of reviews and has spotted particular exuberance for products such as printer paper (average: 4.4 stars), boots (4.4) and dog food (4.7).

It's unfortunate that so many online reviews have become essentially meaningless. I notice this a lot at Amazon where almost every book seems to rate at least four or four-and-a-half stars. It's become so bad that when I see a product with an average of four, I wonder what's wrong with it.

After reading about this proliferation of overly positive feedback online, I was curious to see how the Fraters Beer Ratings stack up. I consider myself to be a tough, but fair critic and wanted to see if the data supported that. With a possible high score of nineteen, the average for the three-hundred-and-eighty-five beers reviewed so far is 12.17. That's comparably far less generous than the averages cited in the story and seems to indicate that I'm not lowering my expectations for what good looks like when it comes to beer.

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