November 16, 2014

Beauty Thoughts #1 - Truthiness in Blogging

I've been at this blogging/vlogging thing for a few years now. I actually started under a different name, several years back, when I was more into green beauty, and I've been an avid consumer of beauty writing and vlogging for even longer before that. And over the past year, I've grown more and more disenchanted with it.

Monika, from Rocaille-Writes, has written an eloquent post about her own unease with the current state of affairs, specifically in relation to the YouTube Celebrity version of the online beauty community. I highly recommend giving that a look, if you haven't already. And for a mini-rant along those lines, check out this video post from Kirsten, of ItsKeerstin. The part I'm referring to is at the beginning, but if you do want legit beauty reviews, I say watch the rest of the video. And then all her other videos. ;)

As a consumer of both beauty products and the online beauty community, everything they've said highlights my own unease. I don't begrudge anyone their success, and I think it's awesome that there are so many avenues of potential career growth that just didn't exist 5-10 years ago. I think the major problem is that something that started out being an organic extension of Makeupalley and chat forums - where people talked about what they liked and didn't like, and offered great personal recommendations - and an avenue for aspiring beauty journalists, has essentially become another form of advertising. And I'm not talking about having ads on the page or before the video. Blogging about beauty takes time and money - I know for a fact - so some funds coming in from passive advertising is appreciated, and I don't think it takes away from anyone's experience. For professional bloggers, I also do understand that the costs become even more of an issue, and I get the need for some sponsored content. As long as it's well-written and explicitly disclosed, all the power to you.

On a personal level, though, the more sponsored content I see, the less I trust the individual's authenticity. The post or video could be fantastic, and I can certainly enjoy it on an aesthetic level for all the production value and thought that went into making it (see all of Hey Claire's sponsored videos) - but I view it the same way I do any other commercial, with the assumption that someone is trying to sell me something. I don't care if the claim is that "I only do sponsored posts/videos for things I genuinely love". At some point, you end up sacrificing your trustworthiness. We all present a certain version of ourselves when we interact publicly - no one is 100% themselves in those kind of situations, not even on reality shows - but if you are presenting yourself as someone who is giving honest, personal opinions about products, then your whole persona has to be as close to the core as possible. If you're bound by a contract to say certain things a certain way, then you're not being authentic. You're advertising.

And again, if your content is advertorial in nature and you're explicit and honest about that, then I'm cool with it - I just won't take it for gospel. And if you're anything less than 100% transparent about it? Well then, good-bye, and thanks for all the fish.

As someone who also blogs and vlogs, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how I go about things myself. I already don't do sponsored content, but I'm pondering things like PR-provided product and events. Lipstick does not pay the mortgage, so free product certainly isn't in the same category as paid sponsorship. That said, it can become hazy territory as well. Some people manage to maintain their credibility perfectly even while getting PR-provided samples constantly. (Temptalia, for example, and Tracey, from Beauty Reflections.) They either have a very strict, mathematical approach to reviewing, or such an upfront personality and complete transparency that you never doubt their opinion is genuine.

I can say from experience that it's actually a lot harder to do that than you'd think. When you start out, the temptation is of course to be softer on reviews because you want to be on good terms with PRs. And sometimes that is a legitimate factor. I've never had a PR say or suggest that I shouldn't post a review with negative content, but I have heard of it happening. (And I know people have lost PR relationships because of a more negative post.) So even if you're committed to total honesty, I have no doubt that does affect the content in some subliminal way.

And then there's something even more basic - most of us are women, and most of us were trained from a young age to be nice. Double that if you were raised to be a polite Canadian girl. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all, right? (Some bloggers have that as an explicit policy, actually, in that they will only post about things they like.) That is a really hard thing to overcome, and especially so when you get to know and become friendly with the PRs. (I know it's something I've struggled with, trying to find the right word that is both honest and "nice".)

This is why I'm actually debating my policies, and whether I want to continue accepting gratis product. I don't enjoy the mental struggle of finding the "right" way to say something, and I REALLY don't like the idea of having my trustworthiness put in question. And knowing that I already give some blogs and youtubers the side-eye because of this, it feels important to be clear.

(As a side-note, there's another aspect to all this, which is the ever increasing emphasis on consumption. I know I'm the last person that should be speaking about this, considering how much makeup I have...and yet. Companies want to sell things and make money. PR groups want to help companies sell things and make money. Bloggers and vloggers who are PR-friendly - for lack of a better term - also want to make money, so it's in their interest to promote consumption. And I'm not sure I want to be part of that specific cycle. I like makeup, and I like collecting, but doing the Declutter series has put some of this in a different perspective.)

Eeesh. That's long-winded, and I apologize for that, but I had to get it off my chest.

31 comments:

  1. Great post - I think many bloggers and YTers can see where you're coming from and feel the same way. Thanks for giving voice to that uncomfortable thought that we've all been thinking and not confronting.

    I wavered here and there and made concessions in the past to try to stay on good terms with brands, but at the end of the day, if something didn't work for me or I didn't like the price or concept or whatever else, I ended up saying it in the post and often never heard back from the company. And as much as I'd like to say "who needs them anyway" blahblahblah, it bothered me and sometimes felt completely deflated. As a natural reaction against that, I accept less press samples now. At the end of the day, I want my blog to be my platform with my voice and thoughts ringing through clearly. I'm not sure what the long-term solution is, but I think that we're at a moment when blogging can take an unexpected creative turn as a result of refusing to conform.

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    1. Yup, I've experienced some of that "cooling off" with some PRs after a less-than-enthused post.

      The thing is, I was a major beauty junkie before starting to get samples, so it's not like it was a huge reward or motivation factor for me, and yet I still felt that internal pressure. Ugh.

      I totally agree with you that there's a fork in the road right now, for bloggers/vloggers, and I'm really curious to see what the end result is going to be for the ones who take the non-advertorial route.

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  2. AMEN. Well said. And thanks for the shout out too. xo
    When I first started blogging, I was soft too, but now my attitude is I don't give a fuck. If you want to send me something to review, that's fine and dandy, but NEVER tell me what to say. I think that's why I don't get a lot of really high end brands like NARS, Guerlain, YSL sent to me though. Even L'Oreal truth be told has seemed to drop me off their list now as I have not heard from them since June. Getting free product is nice, but that's not why I started blogging(honestly, I give away almost everything sent to friends and also to women's shelters). One too many times I was steered wrong because of a positive review in a magazine, and I wanted to try and stop that from happening to others. I have no allegiance to any brands, and if you don't want me telling what think about your product, don't send it to me. A lot of bloggers I'm noticing are so afraid of giving negative reviews, including people I consider friends. WHY? Like, would your life be SO MUCH WORSE if you didn't get free Dior anymore? C'MON. And like you, I'm trying to decrease what's around here too, and blog less. I am tired and can't blog every day anymore. It's partly due to health, but also to being frustrated and disillusioned. The posts I enjoy writing the most are about the products I actually bought, so I'll be saying NO THANKS to some offers as well, just like you.

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    1. I think your increasing DGAF attitude is a big part of why I started looking more critically at the way I was both consuming and writing beauty reviews.(Aside from the shadiness that was starting to be more apparent.)

      The more I see blogs and videos that are regurgitated press releases (even beautifully written and presented ones), the more irritated I become. And it's really frustrating when it happens with folks I like and used to admire.

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    2. I'm starting to feel like people think I swear in my reviews because I did here?? i don't. That's just my attitude. I never swear when I review things. If I don't like it, I bring out Snarky Tracy. That's it.

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    3. .. who are you talking to and where did you swear? SO confused by what is happening here.

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    4. Are we really playing this game? Aren't we mature enough to simply respond to the person? Tracy, did you think I was accusing you of swearing in your reviews? Because I said *I* like to be polite in my reviews, it had absolutely nothing to do with anyone else than me. I don't play that game. I don't even know if you swear in your reviews.

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    5. Ummm, no-I wasn't referring to you at all. I don't really know you? Sorry, but we don't ever speak even so no. I wasn't talking about you.

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  3. Hi Maggie :) You know I share your thoughts and feelings on this subject - and thanks for the link love! There's a lot of grey area in regards to sponsored content and PR samples; and you're completely right, as soon as I see someone fail to disclose their brand relationships, it's bye bye for me. It astounds me how many popular gurus on YouTube are guilty of that - aren' they at least a little bit afraid of legal consequences? That aside, I also wanted to add something about accepting PR samples to review, since like you, I don't do sponsored content. In my (limited) experience so far, most of the time the often unpleasant consequences of accepting a sample for review far outweight the benefits of trying something for free, which is probably how non-bloggers view the whole thing. I've had so many strained relationships with disrespectful, ignorant, non responsive PRs that I'm contemplating whether I even want to go through the process of working with them, or whether it woud have just been simpler to buy what I want to review and leave it at that, no strings attached. I'm sure you know what I mean; you can also check out Kristin Gehm's vlog from last week where she talks about having the same experience as well. PRs, bloggers are people too, you know? Bloggers, not beggars.

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    1. I'm going to have to check out Kristin's blog, I haven't yet.

      I think the legalities are different in the UK and Canada, in terms of disclosing free products and sponsored content, so a lot of people manage to skirt around that with really vague disclaimers. Which just makes you look SO MUCH SHADIER. If you're worried that people won't believe your reviews if they know you get paid or sent product, then maybe the solution isn't to obfuscate. Lying never helps trust issues.

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  4. Great post, and thanks for sharing the other posts/videos. I watch ItsKeerstin and loved her mini rant, and agree with it. I got into watching YT a few years ago, and my long time love of makeup turned into collecting. I quickly found that the really popular beauty people were clearly just selling me product, and sadly the UK vloggers seemed to be doing it without any sort of disclosure. While I will still watch some of them I don't consider their opinions seriously. I have really enjoyed your videos ( especially the declutter, it has made me face the fact that I really must back off the makeup purchasing) and blog for the great content and honesty. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you and my pleasure! :D

      I totally agree with you about the UK bloggers. It saddens me because I think they seem like lovely people, but at the end of the day I don't want to spend my time watching pretty commercials, and trying to figure out what the legit recommendations are, or trying to read between the lines.

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  5. Louise16.11.14

    I was just about to bookmark your site, since the tab was still open from my last visit, and I liked your tone and the fact that you're from Montreal (me too). After reading this I'm extra-hooked! Love the reference to "truthiness" in the title as well as the recognition of the importance of "niceness" in women's culture. (I definitely remember being told that "If you don't have anything nice to say..." line.) Not what I was expecting, and I really like it. AND I learned a new acronym (DGAF). Thanks!

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    1. Haha, I'm glad you like the reference! (Love Colbert, and I think, strangely, watching John Oliver on Last Week Tonight has also inspired me to take a harder, more critical look at the shadiness happening here.)

      And thank you! :)

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  6. Great post, I was talking with a friend about this yesterday. I'm a big fan of the YouTube beauty community ( I create content myself as well as blog) and I find more and more I'm questioning the "truthiness" in the content. If I hear about Whitening Lightening, Bellami or Audible one more time I think I'll scream. I've started looking for more channels & blogs that I feel are real & where I can get an honest opinion.

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    1. Or Gerard freaking Cosmetics. *fistshake*

      I did a big unsub yesterday and today, and I honestly feel so much better. I'd rather give my time (and the ad revenue bucks) to people who are legit and transparent.

      And thank you!

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  7. I'm not sure how I feel about your post, to be honest. I've seen a few bloggers that are always IN LOVE with everything they try and it's always a bit weird to me because perfect products are hard to find. There's always a little something, it can be the price, the smell, etc. On the other hand though, I've been guilty of being polite if I don't like something, but that's how I am in real life too! I think there is a way to say your opinion without saying it's sh*t, and because everyone is different, it might not work for me but it can be perfect for someone else! But because of that, is it how other bloggers see me, someone who is softer on reviews to get more free stuff? Heck, I refused many offers lately because the whole english/french thing is very time consuming and I started to ask myself if that's something I would buy. If that's not something I would like to buy, I don't want to 'waste' 4 hours to review it. My blog isn't my 'real' job (I don't even earn money with it right now, I don't have adwords and rarely have advertising), it's my passion and the only thing that allow me to keep talking about beauty stuff since I'm not working in the hair and makeup industry anymore. It's also the only thing that kept my mind off from the fact that my parents divorced earlier this year and that I had health issues (results came back clear). I just can't help it but think that's how some of you see me. I hope not.

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    1. I totally agree with you that there's no need to use foul language, or be mean for the shock value either. I think some people have a naturally more confrontational, sassy style, and some people have a more measured, gentle way of articulating their thoughts. That's just style, you know? For me, the "niceness" comes through in the substance of the reviews, when there's rarely any mention of negative points, or when the vast majority of the pr-sampled product reviews fall into "OMG LOVE" category. There's a line, once crossed, where the blog or blog starts sounding like a mouth piece for the brands, rather than a genuine reflection of that person's experience.

      For what it's worth, I don't read your posts and think you're being "easy" on the product - you're thorough, and balanced about what you liked and didn't, and what could potentially work for someone else with different preferences.

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    2. That was meant to be "or vlog". Auto-correct is apparently not up on the lingo.

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  8. Maggie, I applaud you giving voice to what's obviously been on your mind for some time now. I have been blogging for over 4 years now and to say that at times it's been a struggle, wouldn't be a lie. At times it's also been ridiculously easy and my relationships with various agencies/brands has developed through my hard work and efforts. I strive to put out a detailed review with every single post and with regards to honesty, I have never been anything BUT. I am fortunate that I do receive quite a lot of products from many brands - but do you see me reviewing everything? The answer is no - mainly because I physically do not have the time and secondly, the products I don't deem review worthy, I won't squander what little time I have by working on them.

    As to saying negative things about any product, it's not that I won't or can't; my school of thought has always been - and DISCLAIMER ALERT: this is not meant to offend anyone who reads this - that it really doesn't take that much efforts to crap on a product - like literally no thought at all - and to me, when I read bloggers (even those I consider friends) using profanity to describe a product, it just makes them sound sour and bitter and it makes me sad to hear them lower their standards to those levels. Let me state clearly here that I personally have the vocabulary of a truck driver and I'm no stranger to swearing; you just won't EVER see it in written form on my blog. I believe you can get your point across without getting nasty. It takes so much more effort to come up with something positive to say, and that's the example I try to live by: never give up. The other point I'd like to make, is that we're losing sight of something when we talk about reviews: and that is that we all have different skin tones & complexions, some of us are oily, some dry, others a combination of a zillion things, there are hormones and the environment to factor in as well, and what may not work on one person could very well turn out to be a 'holy grail' on another - who are we to judge our fellow bloggers? If something doesn't work on you but works on me, is the product still bad? Whose version of "honesty" then becomes the truth? See what I mean? This is a sliding scale and at the end of the day, we should all use our judgement and decide for ourselves.


    This past Summer, I went through hell with Rocky's illness. In fact, I lost all interest in blogging, the beauty industry - the whole enchilada. When my beautiful boy passed, for the longest time I couldn't even bring myself to look at makeup, let alone think about reviewing anything. But you know what? It was blogging and reviewing and testing and events and all that goes with this industry, that helped me get my act together and give me purpose. So say what you will about blogging, all I know is that I am so grateful I had this outlet to turn to in my time of need. And you know what else? It's exactly because of my blog, that I've met so many like-minded people and made some really good friends (present company included!). So yeah, I may have gone a little off-topic, but I thought it would be good to show the OTHER more positive side of things to what we do.

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    1. I know how rough Rocky's illness was on you, and I'm really glad blogging ended up being something positive and affirming for you. (((hugs))) I think at its best, a passion and a community is what makes our days richer and more fulfilling, even through the bad times.

      As I mentioned in my response to Kristelle, I don't think tone and personal style has anything to do with content. Everyone has their way of writing (and for someone who enjoys awesome and hilarious reviews, complete with swearing, I recommend Brightest Bulb in the Box) and that's cool. And like you say, everyone has their own personal preferences, and that's definitely important to take into consideration both as someone who blogs, and as someone who reads blogs.

      I think the major difference for me is when it becomes obvious that the person sounds more like a PR agent for the brand than a resource and advocate for the consumer experience. The trust in that blogger/vlogger starts eroding. And for me personally, as a content-creator, that's something I'm really wary about. I've seen it happen with people who become dependant on press samples and sponsorship for either their livelihood or their blog/vlog identity/content.

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    2. But Maggie, at the risk of sounding redundant, what's the real issue here? For that matter, what's the problem anyway? In my view, it's quite simple: if you don't like what a particular vlogger/blogger is saying or the manner in which said review is coming across, just don't bother with them and follow/read someone who meshes more with your style. YOU have that option. At the end of the day, if that person tries to promote a product that is ultimately worthless, then they will feel the response via reduced readership/following. It's like complaining about a show on tv; if you don't like it, switch the channel.

      So wherein lies the issue? If you don't like the way some people are managing their blogs or blogs, then use that knowledge to direct your endeavours in ways that make YOU happy - in other words, stop worrying about what they are doing, and just channel your energies into what you want to do. So much less stressful that way.

      With regards to swearing, as I said, I can cuss with the best of them - and then some; I just choose to not share that side of me on my blog. I can enjoy a post that meshes humour with profanity; I just don't like it when the swearing overrides the review - total turn off for me. Just because we can, doesn't mean we necessarily should. There's a lot more I can add here, but then that would be the equivalent of "kissing & telling" and let's just leave it at that.

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    3. I'm not sure what you mean by "real" issue? I've identified the issue in the title of the post, and then elaborated it in the body of the text. The issue is the current lack of transparency and trustworthiness in beauty blogging and vlogging, and the increasing model of blogging-as-advertisement as opposed to genuine personal reviews.

      And sure, I could just shrug, un-sub or un-follow, and go on my way. And at the basic level of consumption, that's a choice we all make when it comes to products and culture: do we engage or not. But since I'm capable of critical thought, and I have this particular avenue for writing through that process, I thought it was worthwhile and might add something to a broader discussion. (And judging from the other comments here, it appears to be something that a lot of people have been ruminating on, and seems to be a mounting concern in the online beauty community.)

      For me personally, I've always found it important to consider the things that are important to me through an introspective and critical lens. I don't believe in living an unexamined life, and when I started experiencing this malaise regarding something that had always brought me joy and satisfaction, it was important for me to figure out the root cause. Once I know that, it helps clarify for me how I need to change my content creation as well as how I consume other content. Putting it in writing is part of a figuring-it-out process that I've always used, though in the past it's been with paper journals and then live journal. I haven't generally used this blog for more personal writing, but maybe that's part of what I need to change.

      On a broader level, I think being part of a community means being engaged in how it develops. And that's what I'm doing when I invite discussion about the ethics of blogger disclosure, and about the changing dynamic between companies and v/bloggers, and v/bloggers and their audience, especially as the community becomes more and more commercialized. (And again, it seems to be something that is an emerging concern.)

      I think a blog can be anything you want it to be, and how you participate in the community is up to you. At this point, I don't want to just write my reviews, and read/watch the people I like, and then call it a day. My engagement needs have levelled up. It's not stressful for me to worry about what "other" people are doing. It IS stressful to actively bury my head in the sand and not confront the things that are problematic.

      But I do agree with you that people need to follow their own path in all things, and live their life in an authentic way. (Which is sort of the general point I'm making.)

      And in regards to swearing in reviews - I'm not sure why this is something that's come up in this discussion, as it has nothing to do with either ethics or audience trust. It's a stylistic choice. That said, I would point you to Chris Kluwe, who uses profanity in a way that would make any professional writer envious at his dexterity and creativity with prose. Man's a swearing savant! :)

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kluwe/an-open-letter-to-emmett-burns_b_1866216.html

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    4. I respect your opinion and on some level, Maggie, I understand that there is a form of 'catharsis' at play here; Lord knows, I've wanted to unload a lot of feelings I have on a variety of subjects, the whole blogging/authenticity issue being one of them. But let me ask you this: are these subjects mutually exclusive? If one accepts monetary compensation for providing a service i.e.: press samples for a post, how does that differ from say, what you presently do for a living now? Do you not create displays to entice the client to come into the store? Are we to judge your actions then as somehow false? Or are you merely offering up an option? So yeah - there are those bloggers/vloggers who go totally overboard in their reviews, and we all know it's to keep getting gifted - and? Is dumping all over them somehow justified because we don't do things that way? What I'm saying, is that you can be critical with your own life and want to effect positive changes - but why involve others? Maggie, why is it important to you whether others are credible or not? What should be important to you, is how YOU see yourself and manage your life. You don't throw away the barrel because of a few bad apples.

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    5. If we're going to use fruit analogies, then I would say you're comparing apples to oranges. Visual presentation is part and parcel of sales. No one walks into a store assuming that the people there have a goal aside from selling them something. You expect salesmanship and being enticed to buy, because that is what we understand stores to be.

      Beauty reviews, however, are not supposed to be a form of sales and advertisement. (That is why the FTC has such strict regulations about disclosure, after all.) Some v/bloggers are very good about declaring sponsored content and their affiliations, and that's good ethics. It makes me not inclined to watch or read their stuff, however, because I don't generally have the time or the interest in viewing commercials. But hey, if someone wants to pursue a career in, essentially, advertising, then that's cool. It's not my bag, which is where the personal choice of how I run my blog and my channel comes into play. And there I'm totally with you on the "being critical in my own life and effecting positive change" for myself.

      But the other side of that is that there is also a lot of shadiness in terms of disclosure (people who skirt the ethics by not admitting sponsorship), and the more subtle loss of credibility when people who don't explicitly get paid to say certain things start playing both sides of the game by slanting their reviews (or their favourites videos, or whatever) to be more favourable to the brand or the product, at the expense of the audience. At that point, it's sales and advertising, where there is no reasonable expectation from the reader/viewer to anticipate that. It doesn't do that v/blogger any favours in the long run, as people catch on to the fact that they are being sold something, and it kills the trustworthiness and reliability.

      That's wrong, and calling that out isn't remotely equivalent to "dumping on" anyone. Exercising critical thought and speech isn't about being hateful or mean, it's about recognizing that something is problematic.

      And in this case, it actually does extend past the the folks in question, as it starts to become a suspicion in people's minds. When readers/viewers experience that realization that this blogger and that blogger is not being honest, is obfuscating their relationships with brands, maybe really doesn't love that product as much as they said they did - that starts to permeate their perception of other v/bloggers as well. (Is EVERYONE lying to me? Can I trust any reviews?) And that damages the community as whole.

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    6. Your replies have been on-point, Maggie. I'm glad that you're speaking about your concerns on the record. Everybody gets to choose how they take part in the community, it's true-- but I am really happy that we have bloggers like you that employ critical thinking and critique when it comes to issues of ethics and transparency. I for one don't see a point in keeping thoughts of ethical issues private-- that's what allows the issues to reign unchecked.

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    7. Thank you! And you make an excellent point about complacency allowing things to go unchecked.

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  9. True, and your point is spot on. But realistically speaking, what can be done about these "connivers"? It's like the hordes of eBay thieves who routinely steal my photos without giving me neither credit nor a link. If I stop to chase them all down, I would be doing nothing else all day. Enough - I just channel my energies on my own work and let the other stuff go. Another issue you didn't touch on but has a parallel, is the whole fake social media profile thing; I've worked my butt off to get to where I am today, through hard work and even stronger ethics, and my following has grown organically, and yet there are people I know (no names) who stoop to the level of 'buying' their following, and all for the sake of the almighty-dollar, or in this case, exposure re: press samples. It burns me up, especially the ones who stalk my account to see who I'm tagging, so they can then try to cash in on my efforts but you know what this has taught me? That in the end, it ultimately doesn't matter. So, I just do the best I can do - privately disagree with others' shady practices - and keep my eye and energies firmly focussed on not losing sight of what I enjoy doing. And Maggie? There will always be people who are suspicious, regardless of how open and honest you are - that's just the way of the world.
    PS: I'm loving this spirited debate - thank you! Now more than ever, we need that coffee to continue this in person. Better make that a dinner, cause I think we'll have plenty to say! LOL! And for the record, in case I was being unclear, it's not that I disagree with any of the points you've brought up; I'm merely pointing out other factors you didn't mention. Call me the Devil's Advocate (I've been called worse)

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    1. Yes, we definitely need a dinner. :D

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  10. Lost my whole post.... Darn... Anyway, totally agree maggie, i may re-rewrite tomorrow.

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  11. So much what you say rings soooo very true to my own experience. Blogging is wonderful but at times it brings a lot of stress and unease. This is such a multi-faceted problem that when I read some of these comments, I can't help and agree a bit with everyone!

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Hi! Thank you for your comment, I love to hear back from you guys. =) I try to respond back to every comment within a few days.

Please don't use this comment form for self-promotion, though. It's bad blogger etiquette. And we don't wish to upset Emily Post. ;)