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New ACCC guidelines for online reviews

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By Kaye Blum

As a 21 year old emerging writer, I was incredibly excited to land my first writing job reviewing gigs in a popular weekly street press magazine. I wouldn’t be paid for my work of course – the publication was free to readers and relied on advertising revenue to survive. But I would get a byline – my name would be in print – that was exciting! And that was over 20 years ago, well before the emergence of the internet. These days pretty much anyone can have a byline online.

I didn’t see myself as a critic, more of a reporter, providing punters with an insight to a particular performance or event as I’d experienced it. As a local music fan, I was thrilled to get my name on the door to see some of my favourite bands.

But I soon discovered it wasn’t all fun and games, I had to work. I needed to take a few notes (pre-smartphone-with-recorders era), which I preferred to do discretely (not easy in a dimly lit room with no tables). I had to stand where I could get the best quality sound, which was usually by the mixing desk. But I also needed a clear view of the stage and I’m not very tall. Needless to say, I had to be on the ball, so drinking wasn’t an option. And back then, I was fond of a bevvy or three at a gig.

Then came the actual writing process. And this didn’t come easily at first. I was a perfectionist and wanted my piece to sound as good as the music I’d heard. Well, close enough, anyway. I remember at times toiling away on a draft all night, sometimes until dawn, to file my review before deadline. Lead times were short – there was an editor and a pre-press process to go through before hitting that marvellously historic invention, the printing press.

When the weekly edition hit the streets, I’d race out to the nearest distribution point (usually a pub or record store) to grab a copy. I’d flick through the pages at lightning speed until I found my article. Week after week, my reviews were published verbatim.

One week, however, it was possibly my eighth or ninth review, I read my work in print and the colour drained from my face. It had been changed. A whole line had been removed and another added, which clearly altered the opinion I had articulated from my viewing experience of the gig. These were not my words, and they did not reflect what I had witnessed. But the review still had my name on it. 

I raced home and rang the editor. Why did you change my piece? What was wrong with it? Well, she explained, the headline artist’s record company is a major advertiser in our magazine; and your review wasn’t very favourable of him. What? It wasn’t directly critical or blatantly negative. Why couldn’t you call me first to discuss it with me? If it really had to change to something I didn’t actually experience I’d have asked you to take my name off it altogether. I put down the phone.

I never wrote for them again. In fact, I never reviewed again, until the past year. After living in London for six years from the mid Nineties and witnessing how some critics, particularly theatre critics, would sit in the front row with their pen and pads practically waving about as if to say, look at me, I’m very important to your production. And unfortunately, they did have the power to make or break a production with their reviews, depending on the publication they wrote for.

But isn’t a review just an opinion? It might be an educated and informed opinion, it might not. The reviewer’s experience can be impacted by so many factors – an exhausted performer, dodgy equipment, a catastrophe in the kitchen. There are factors that might not be apparent. And how informed is the reviewer? Are they an expert in the field they’re critiquing? Or are they just another punter? It varies. Dramatically. Especially now with the internet, because pretty much anyone can publish a review on a wide range of platforms, from TripAdvisor to their own blog.

Some review platforms publish anonymous reviews, so there is little or no accountability. Anyone can say anything. And they do. Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to online comments, anonymity gives some cowards the opportunity to say things they wouldn’t dare put their name to.

But maybe not for much longer.

Late last year, YouTube changed the way comments are managed* and moderated by requiring a Google+ ID login to comment. In a recent SlideShare presentation from JWT Intelligence called 101 Things To Watch In 2014*, slide number 97 predicts verified reviewers as the way forward, citing platforms such as Amazon and Google Play as already utilising a form of verification.

In an effort to address the increase of fake positive reviews and potentially business-destroying defamatory ones, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) published new guidelines to online reviews* for both businesses and review platforms in November 2013. While honest reviews can be helpful for consumer decision-making, the increase in fake positive and contrived negative reviews has serious implications.

The ACCC publication provides guiding principles on transparency of commercial relationships, reviews presented as impartial that are not, and editing or omission of reviews that can be misleading.

Disclosure of any incentive given to review is vital. When I added a review section to Tweed Scene last year, I updated my About page to disclose my reviewing principles in an effort to maintain the integrity of the site. After completing MEAA’s Australian Media Law and Ethics training in December, I was glad I’d instinctively chosen transparency on Tweed Scene, but even more grateful to have a deeper knowledge of Australian defamation laws.

Personally, I’m all for transparency, integrity, and reviewer verification. So I hope JWT Intelligence’s prediction for 2014 comes true. Meanwhile, for all those reviewers and bloggers out there who aren’t accredited journalists, best you familiarise yourself with the ACCC’s guidelines, pronto 🙂

*Accessed 15/1/14

Written by Kaye Blum

January 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Information overload at MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

The Forum Melbourne Writers Festival

The Forum, Melbourne, overlooking the site of the Melbourne Writers Festival. But the real forum for the festival was happening on Twitter.

There were quite a few panels featuring Jay Rosen at MWF2011 and most of them had, naturally, a journalism focus. While this is of interest to me, my research is more concerned with the impacts of new media technologies on writers of longer form non-fiction or fiction; and how specific groups can connect. But the MWF blurb for the session titled Information Overload got me in:

Has the endlessly ballooning internet sacrificed quality of information for quantity? Net culture researcher Suelette Dreyfus (Hacker), citizen journalism advocate Jay Rosen (Rebooting the News) and Jeremy Goldkorn (danwei.org) discuss the limits of helpful data and whether the net, while changing lives, is also changing our social structures. Chaired by Jeff Sparrow.

I wanted to take my iPad to all MWF sessions to take notes, but because I find it impossible to touch-type on its keypad, I stayed old-school with my notebook and pen. So here are some of the most relevant points I gleaned from my notes on this session (held on 28th August 2011 at Federation Square)…

Rosen quoted someone whose name I missed (sorry!): “There’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure”. He named Google, Technorati and Google’s blog search function as key filters. “It comes in waves,” he added; “the technology, the tools, the flood of information, then the filters.”

He commented on one of the things that is radically changing the world – the falling cost of like-minded people being able to find each other, share information, pool what they know and publish to the world. “The internet is extremely efficient at doing this. That’s powerful. When they discover they’re not the only ones, that’s liberating.”

It’s this last statement that has resonance for me. When I was a teenager (in a pre-internet era), music on the radio was my window to the world. Sometimes I found song lyrics that created a connecting moment and made me realize I wasn’t alone, wasn’t the only one feeling this way. A few books did the same thing, but the school library was fairly limited.

These little connecting moments, even if they come from across the world, can be a lifeline for some. The internet turns these connecting moments into real dialogue, real connections.

As Rosen noted, social revolutions can happen now that people can connect with other like-minded people. “Information is a measure of uncertainty reduced” he said. I tweeted that last line and got some challenging replies.

Speaking of Twitter and connections, #MWF2011 was the first time I’ve engaged in this platform during a conference and I found it an enlightening experience. It was invaluable being part of the festival community through this channel and I met many like-minded people as a consequence. But the event’s Tweeting Award goes to Charlotte Harper @ebookish – her supreme two-finger typing on an iPad provided a constant Twitter stream of awesome quotes from every event she attended.

Another unexpected delight from tuning into Twitter was scoring a free ticket (thanks @kateyharc) to the MWF session, A Long Way To Go: Why We Still Need Feminism. Sophie Cunningham’s fact-loaded essay was both frightening and fascinating; but also inspiring. You can watch it here thanks to SlowTV.

By the end of the festival, I found myself suffering a serious case of information overload. I’ve been obsessively addicted to reading Twitter updates to the point that it has become a major distraction. I’ve pretty much ignored Facebook, my usual social media platform of choice. But now I’ve had to switch off all channels so I can try to get some work done. On with it…

A summary of Bookcamp – The Future of Storytelling is up next.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Written by Kaye Blum

September 6, 2011 at 5:41 am

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