This is a wonderful time to be a real person. Ordinary people -- folks just like you and me -- are popping up all over the place. You see us in ads for e-readers, Fords, and room fresheners. Today's conventional wisdom, according to AdWeek, suggests that real people make a brand seem "more genuine and authentic." If you happen to be a real person and possess an opinion, Madison Avenue wants to know what you have to say. Martha Stewart? If the brouhaha in the blogosphere is any indication, maybe not so much.
The domestic diva got herself in the soup for remarks she made in an interview with Stephanie Ruhle of Bloomberg Television. By now, everyone on the world wide web knows what Stewart said:
Who are these bloggers? They're not trained editors at Vogue magazine. I mean, there are bloggers writing recipes that aren't tested, that aren't necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create kind of a popularity, but they are not the experts. And we have to understand that. [Emphasis added].
Stewart ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere, especially since many bloggers gauged her comments as hypocritical; she has been a keynote speaker at BlogHer, and her publicists actively seek bloggers to help promote her merchandise.
I've sat this out until now, but after considering the incident, it does seem to merit discussion about nuance, authenticity, the nature of expertise, and what bloggers can and shouldn't do.
Some disclosure is probably in order. Stewart's aides have never reached out to me, although as a member of the Viewpoints Blogger Reviews Panel and a contributor to its website I have offered my opinion on the Kindle Paperwhite and the KitchenAid Pro Line Dicing Food Processor, among other items. And a publicist for Verizon Wireless invited me to become a member of its Verizon Boomer Voices program, in which I offer my opinion on such mobile devices as the DROID RAZR MAXX HD smart phone and the Fitbit One.
I don't at all mind that I've not been asked to serve as one of Martha Stewart's brand ambassadors, although, had I been approached, I would have said yes. I have admired Stewart's aesthetic and contributions to the domestic arts for years. But I find her comments troubling, especially in light of her active recruitment of bloggers. As many bloggers will tell you, our authenticity as real people who use real products gives us enormous credibility. There's a case to be made for life experience contributing to expertise. It would appear as though the Martha Stewart brand was looking for this authenticity.
So what exactly do we mean by the word "expert" anyway?
Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, defines an expert as one "having special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience." Let's deconstruct this a moment, using my blog and one of its sections as an example.
In naming my site "The Midlife Second Wife," I made two explicit declarations: I have lived a fair number of years and am therefore no spring chicken, and I have married for the second time. I am, at the present moment, 57 years old and have been cooking for at least 35 years. A section on my blog features recipes, many of which are mine and all of which I have prepared. In working with these recipes over the course of a lifetime, it's fair to say that I have "tested" them. Every recipe I've shared on the blog has been wildly popular with my family and friends (trust me, I'm not about to share the occasional flop with you), so it's safe to assume they are "very good." In cases where I include recipes from some of my favorite cookbook authors--dishes I also have in my regular cooking rotation--I have asked for, and received, permission to reprint them. I make no claims to be chef, professional cook, or restaurateur; in that sense I am not an expert. But you can take to the bank the fact that I'm an excellent home cook with decades of experience in the kitchen. In that respect, I am an expert.
As for blogging, I bring experience as a published writer and editor to the enterprise. While the Oberlin Conservatory Magazine is hardly Vogue, it is nevertheless a beautiful publication featuring the students, faculty, and alumni of one of the most renowned music schools in the United States. I served as its editor for 10 years, from 2001 to 2010. I also majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing at Oberlin College, so I learned a thing or two about what it takes to craft a narrative.
These are my credentials -- I know many other bloggers who have résumés with similar bona fides. I present mine here not because this incident is about me, but because I'm a blogger, and the Stewart incident raises the question about what we choose to blog about, what our experience has been, and how we go about the whole enterprise. I'm happy to offer my opinion in areas where I believe I have something worthwhile to contribute, and where I can provide useful and enlightening information in what I hope is an enjoyable read for you. I also tend to agree with Linda Lacina, who posits in Entrepreneur.com that the real battle bloggers might consider waging isn't necessarily with Martha Stewart, but with shoddy content. That could have been the point Stewart was trying to make, but unfortunately, her remarks painted all bloggers with a push broom-sized brush.
Let me add that I have never -- and I promise you that I will never -- pass myself off as an expert by adding to the critical literature on figure-skating, cross-bow hunting, parachuting, or hand surgery. What I will do is write, to the best of my ability, about what I know. In cases where I feel compelled to write about what I don't know, but wonder about (hand surgery, anyone?), I'll bring in the experts. (I've already interviewed a few on Monday Morning Q&A.)
And I promise to edit myself as carefully as I can.
"Martha Stewart Speaks Out: Bloggers are not Experts," Bloomberg.com
"Note to Bloggers: Fight Bad Content, not Martha Stewart" by Linda Lacina, Entrepreneur.com
"Whatever, Martha" by Adam Roberts, The Huffington Post
"Does Martha Stewart Owe Food, Lifestyle Bloggers an Apology?" by Rene Lynch, the Los Angeles Times
"Dear Martha Stewart, Here's What You Should Have Said About Bloggers" by Julie Ross Godar, BlogHer.com
"Martha Stewart Likes Bloggers. I Have Proof." by Gabrielle Blair, DesignMom.com
"Martha Stewart and the Case of the Not-So-Expert Food Blogger" by Tracy Beckerman, LostinSuburbia.com